ministry logo


A Trip to Central Asia - 1997


This was a trip I took as a priest to Central Asia for what I thought was going to be a fact-finding trip, but toward the end, I was asked to make a commitment to staying there.  I was not about to do that.  Because this was originally written for my family and friends - I left out some of the more scandalous moments of the trip - preserving the image of the people involved.  If I can find my original, hand written notes of this trip, I may add them as annotations, otherwise, I think it best to leave it in its original formThere is one very significant meeting left out of this - our meeting with the president of Turkmenistan... it is left out because we signed non-disclosure documents that prevent us from putting anything in writing, including a description of the meeting, meal and location.  Though we are free to talk about it... just not in print.  I am still legally bound by the agreement - ask me about it sometime.

Turkmenistan!  I had never heard of it prior to last summer.  At that time I caught wind of  some rumors that the Oblates in the United States were considering a request by Rome that we start a mission there.  It would be a joint mission with the Oblates from Poland to a country that had no Catholic priests, no Catholic Church (no Christian presence of any brand, actually), and had had no real religious presence for the past 60 years or so.  A country that had only recently been freed from Communist rule.  A country where the people spoke mainly Russian and Turkmen.  A third world country. 

When I heard of it, and knowing only the above, I volunteered for the mission.  I figured "what the heck", it's something new and it would be an adventure... "why not?"

I verbally volunteered, and then left it at that.  I did not hear much more about it until months later when one of the provincials from OCUS (Oblate Conference of the U.S.) called and asked if I were serious about it all, and if so, to put it in writing.  I did.  Pointing out that I have no real talent for learning languages, figuring that that would be the highest obstacle I would have to overcome in regards to the mission.  After being told that they were seriously considering the mission and my being part of it, I decided to look it up on the map.  That was not real easy, the only Atlas I had was about 10 years old, and so the borders of this newly independent state was not available there.  Thank God for the internet.  It turns out that Turkmenistan has their own web page, and there is other information available about the country on various government and other sites.
Turkmenistan is bounded by the Caspian Sea in the west and the AMU-DARYA river to the east, it is the second largest of the former Soviet Central Asian Republics after Kazakstan.  It's a very sparsely populated country, mainly because it is mostly desert.  To the south, the desert is fringed by the KOPET DAG ("lots of mountains") MOUNTAINS.  This mountain chain is an earthquake prone natural border with Iran.  On the other side of the eastern border lies Afghanistan.  Smaller mountain ranges divide Turkmenistan from Kazakstan.

It is a country that has been described as resembling an Arab Gulf state without the money.  The Turkmen or only a couple of generations away from being nomadic tribes.  They were never a real nation and historically have always allowed their cities to be populated by other peoples, placing more esteem on rural life that revolved around their famous, traditionally patterned carpets and AKHAL-TEKE horses, supposedly the ancestor of the Arabian racehorse.

The KARAKUM ("Black Sands) desert, one of the world's largest sand deserts, makes up 80% of the country.  Many of its cities were built by Alexander the Great, the Persians, the Arabs and the Russians.  But quite a few of these cities are little more than skeletons of what they once were.  As one person said "rarely does a region with such a rich history have so little to show for it."

The country was taken over by the Russian Bolsheviks in about 1919 and became the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) in 1924.  The soviets had a program of settling the tribes and forcing them into collective farming.  This caused a great guerrilla war that did not end until about 1936.  Rather than give up their nomadic ways, more than a million Turkmen fled into the desert or into northern Afghanistan.  They were also subjected to a Moscow-directed campaign against religion.  Of the 441 mosques that existed in the country in 1911, only 5 remained standing in 1941.  They became an independent country on October 27, 1991.

The Oblates had put out a request for volunteers to all the Oblates in the U.S.  Apparently there were not many who responded, and of the few who did volunteer, there were even fewer truly viable candidates.  I ended up being the most feasible of the bunch (sad isn't it?... scary too).  Well, the Oblates finally asked me to go and have a look at the place with one of the Polish Oblates who had also volunteered.  They asked me to plan on a couple of weeks soon after Christmas, I agreed.  That began a whole series of negotiations about dates and times via fax and telephone.  Finally, after a number of dead ends and aborted proposals we settled on a departure date of December 26 (certainly soon after Christmas!) and a return date of Jan.13.  They would have preferred that I stay longer, but our parish was celebrating its Silver Anniversary on the 26th of January and I felt that it would not be good for me to be away any longer, as I would need to be here in order to be available for the plans and needs of that event. 

Planning for this trip was something that I was forced to do in between other activities.  The month prior to Christmas was spent planning and organizing the Ordination of our new Bishop.   I was asked to plan the liturgy that was scheduled for Dec. 17 of all times - only a week before Christmas!  All the little details and coordinating that went into that event certainly ate up my time, energy and mental focus.  This was going to be the first episcopal ordination in the diocese, it was going to happen in a convention center, and all the principal players were spread throughout the country.  It was a lot of work, but it came off.  With the end of the ordination there was no real time to sit back and relax, simply a switch of gears to Christmas planning . 

The Christmas masses seemed to go pretty well, despite the choirs, ministers, and myself feeling drained, wore out and in "high-gear" for a much too long period of time, but we did it, and did it well!   With the conclusion of the last mass on Christmas day, wanting to collapse, drink some egg-nog, eat some sugar cookies, open some gifts; I instead, spent the rest of the day and most of the next, doing laundry and packing.

Getting There

Besides being a peak traveling time, there were all sorts of problems that week with the weather in Seattle.  Getting out of Juneau required going through Seattle.  Planes were not able to easily land or take off from Seattle.  I had paid no attention to the news of such events over the Christmas week, my mind was elsewhere.  Many flights were canceled, all flights were late and when I got to the airport for what was supposed to be a 6:30 PM departure I noted how empty the airport seemed.  I did not notice the note taped to the door informing us that certain flights were canceled.... mine included.

My flight plans were to fly Warsaw, meet up with the Oblates there, meet my traveling companion, pick up our Vatican passports and then fly from Warsaw to Kazakstan where we would meet up with the Nuncio of Central Asia with whom we would be traveling.  Luckily, (as it turns out) the itinerary included a "free day" in Poland before leaving.

As I was talking with the desk attendant, explaining that I had to get out, that I had all sorts of connections to make, and that if I were not on time that I would have to cancel my whole trip, a guardian angel walked out of the back office - one of my parishioners.  It turns out she is some sort of ticketing supervisor for the airline.  She asked about the problem, took my ticket, returned to her office and half an hour later returned with some hopeful news.  She was able to get me on a flight scheduled to leave later that night, going to Anchorage.  Although this was backwards from the direction that I was supposed to be going, the thinking was that since their airport is bigger, has more airlines that fly out of there (we have only one - Alaska Airlines), my chances would be better from there.  I agreed, she re-booked me, and then went home to wait for my new departure time of 9:00 PM.  As it turned out, the plane was late and we did not take off until about 10:45.

The plane landed in Anchorage about midnight.  There were lots of people in the airport.  It did not look good for planes taking off from there either.  My departure to Seattle was not scheduled until 1:30 AM, so I sat down with my book and waited.   At about 1:00 we were informed that the plane would be late, at about 2:00 we were informed that the plane would not be flying that night (morning) and we should re-book.  Well, I went from airline to airline, looking for a different routing and different company to fly with.  There were several airlines that were flying straight to Europe from there, none of them leaving until the next day or night anyway.  I re-booked with my original carrier for 1:30 the following morning.  Nothing more to do but find a place to spend the night and the next day.  This delay would eat up my free day in Poland, but there was nothing to be done about it.  Sometimes even I must give in to the inevitable.

It was many degrees below zero in Anchorage.  Bitter cold!  I got a room in a hotel in the middle of the city, and at about 3:30 AM went to bed.  The next morning was spent calling my office here in Juneau to get the phone numbers of the Oblate who was the "go-between" for myself and the Polish Oblates to let him know about my change in plans and late arrival.  That done, it was time to wander Anchorage.

I had not been in Anchorage since 1987 and my camping / sight-seeing trip with some friends.  At that time we had not toured the city extensively, and so this was my chance to really see downtown Anchorage.

They have some real malls in Anchorage (more than a hardware store and drugstore) though for the life of me I could not think of anything I might need or want to lug all over Central Asia, it was just fun to window shop.  I walked up and down the streets, spent some time in the book store, and basically just ducked into different shops as my flesh froze and I needed to thaw out.  So, basically, I wasted the day with window-shopping, a movie, and wandering around taking in the frozen sights.  Anchorage is definitely the Alaska that people expect to see - mountains, wide open spaces and water... unlike the rain forest island I live on.

Eventually it got to be time to go to the airport.  I loaded up, got there 2 hours ahead of time like they ask us to, and left 3 hours later.  Our flight left Anchorage at about 2:30, putting us into Seattle at about 7 A.M. Washington time.  The late arrival was not too bad, considering that my flight from Seattle to Detroit (I don't know how they came up with this particular flight plan) was also an hour late.  A three hour flight to Detroit, a 2 hour wait there, and I was off to Amsterdam, arriving 8 hours later; 4 hours after that I was in Warsaw.   I find it rather difficult to sleep on planes, and all of them had been fairly full, so I had been up quite a while by now. 

Warsaw - Russia           

It seemed even colder in Warsaw than it did in Anchorage, being so tired probably didn't help.  After arriving in Warsaw, and while at the baggage carousel, it hit me that I did not know who the heck I would be looking for in the airport.  I had no names or photos, and I was not dressed in my clerical clothing so that I would stick out.  Oh well, I figured it would work out somehow.  It did.  As I walked into the lobby, I was practically hit with a big cardboard sign being held by two guys, declaring OMI... I guessed that this was who I was looking for.

Now all the linguistic fun began.  I will call them Andre and Franz.   They are both Oblate priests.   They really struck me as every stereotype one might want to think about in terms of Communist Poland.  Franz is tall and lanky, blonde hair and bespectacled, wearing a dark, long coat and woolen scarf  wrapped around his neck, he would have been perfect for the role of an informer or secretive, cautious, underground agent.  He spoke some words of English (which more than quadrupled the amount of Polish I spoke) and a broad smile.  Andre really struck me as a beetle of a man.  Shorter than myself by several inches, 45 years of age, he had sort of a rounded back (thus the beetle image), thick neck, with graying, brown, short hair that never seemed to be fully in place.  He had a broad face, with eyes that always seemed to be in a perpetual state of amazement.   I think I would have cast him as the toadie to the Nazi general, sort of a buck Sargent whose only interest was to serve and avoid the wrath of his superior officers.  A good smile and a slightly gravely voice.  He spoke quite a bit of English, but not as much as I thought.  Something I would discover as we spent out time together.  Andre was going to accompany me to Central Asia.  Franz had volunteered for the mission, but would not be going with us on this trip.  He had made the trip to Warsaw in order to meet me and to do some business in the city.

They helped me with my bags, and we caught the city bus that would take us to our home for the night.  After being in the warm plane and terminal, it took a while for the bitter cold to make its way through my layers of clothing and cool me down... but it did.   Our bus proceeded along some rather broad streets, and it was during that trip that my pre-conceived notions of what the city would look like were ratified.  The streets were lined on either side with the big, massive, gray stone buildings that I had expected.  Everything very square, very bland.  I am told that most of the city was leveled in WW II and rebuilt under the communists - in blocky gray.

The Oblate house lay a couple of blocks behind this main street and its big gray blocks.  Once off that main street we were in the midst of what looked like a normal neighborhood that could be found in any U.S. city.  Individual houses and homes, in a variety of colors, all of them surrounded by various sorts of fences and accessible, most often through small metal gates. 

The Oblate house was a 3 floor, very institutional looking building.  It was two-tone-gray in color.  It was home to the seminary students and formation staff.  Not a bad house, but sort of empty, as the students were on Christmas break.  There was only the director of the house and 2 Oblate brothers at home.  They gave me a very cold room and showed me how to operate the small oil heater.  The brothers were very solicitous of my needs, though we did all our communicating through hand gestures and those silly "I don't speak your language" grins that was to become my normal look for most of this trip.

The house is not too far from town.  We had some lunch, and then Andre and Franz asked if I wanted to rest or go for a walk and see the town.  Well, I had been without sleep for the last couple of days, but I did not want to pass up the opportunity of seeing the city.  "A walk," was my choice.

I guess if the weather had been a bit more pleasant, that I would have taken more time to look around and "taken in" more of the sights.  As it was, it was more comfortable to just keep moving.  The two of them gave me a tour of what seemed like 20 different churches.  A few had some historical or religious significance, but I was not always able to understand what that significance was.  I smiled and nodded, and tried to make out on my own what was special about the places we were in.  The majority of them were simply parish churches.  They wanted me to see the manger scenes in each one.  I got the impression that the churches competed to some degree with their creche displays.  The two Poles were sort of surprised to find out that we also put up manger scenes in the U.S.

A number of these scenes were also intended to be social commentaries.  Several were blatant anti-abortion depictions, others stressed themes of abandonment, homelessness, etc.  One of them struck me as almost silly.  It was a scene made up of mannequins dressed as John Paul II and Mother Teresa, the two of them stood in a valley of cotton clouds, flanking a picture of the "Black Madonna" ( a very popular image in all these churches... I surprised the 2 Poles again when I told them I was familiar with it).  Toward the front of this scene, all lined up and resting on the cotton clouds were baby dolls wrapped in blankets.  In the arms of the Mother Teresa image was another baby.  I guess she was the one lining them all up in the clouds.
In another church, the scene was of a back alley, trash cans spilling over, abandoned and broken furniture lying around, graffiti on the wall, and in the midst of it, a baby lying amid the rubbish.  It all seemed very heavy handed to me, and was not what I would call "cheery" Christmas depictions.

We continued our walk through the Old Town of Warsaw.  An area of the town in which the old fortress walls and towers of the city are still preserved and many of the shops try to reflect a medieval look.  It was Sunday however, and so most of the shops were closed.  There were, small groups of people going from church to church.  I was told that they were visiting the different nativity scenes.  It was too cold to really enjoy too much sight-seeing, and I was feeling the lack of sleep.  There were some really great sites that I wanted to photograph, but my camera was frozen, wasn't working.  Oh well.

We stopped by the Warsaw Opera House, and there my tour guides discovered that there was going to be a performance that night.  They decided that it would be a good thing if we all went to it.  I had my doubts, but agreed.  It turns out it was not a concert, but a Polish version of "Fiddler on the Roof".  Well, that seemed interesting.  I know the play well enough and am very familiar with the music.  I thought it would be a fun and pleasant thing to do. 

The two of them tried to purchase tickets, but were told that it was all sold out.  They decided that if they simply wait for people to arrive that someone would have tickets to sell.  I kind of had my doubts, but felt that they knew better than I.  No one would be showing up for about 2 hours, and rather than walk all the way home and then return again, it was agreed that we wander the city a bit more.           

After a bit more walking, there was no choice but to admit how cold we all were, and so we decided to seek shelter at one of the churches.  Luckily, Franz seemed to know every pastor in the area, so he went in one place and finessed us an invitation into the rectory for some tea and cookies.

We sat there until an hour before show time and then went to the theater.  When we got there, Franz parked himself at the front entrance, and as people entered, he asked if they had extra tickets they would like to sell.  To me, it was a rather curious site, this thin, bespectacled man, wearing his black woolen long-coat, approaching stranger after stranger, hands solidly set into his pockets, asking if they had tickets.  It must not have been the norm at the theater, as he drew some rather puzzled, and at times, amused looks.  But, surprise, surprise, he got three tickets.  One on the first level, one at the second level and another on the third level.  He then spent time with other patrons, trying to trade tickets for better seats, and seats together.  He never did get that worked out, but apparently he bought some extra tickets and then sold them.  I think he made money on the whole deal and still managed to get us in the theater.

We split up to our respective seats.  After being so cold, having tramped from church to church, and being very tired, when I sat down and the lights dimmed, I found myself nodding off  to sleep.  I kept waking up throughout the play, and the people sitting next to me were quite amused, the small parts that I saw were interesting, and seemed well done.  I recognized each song, and it was fun to hear them in Polish, but the battle with the eyelids was a losing one.  I did manage to be wake up for intermission and joined the others for a soda.  Andre and I switched seats for the second half, and I slept on the 2nd floor instead of the first.  Oh well, it was an experience.

We walked back to the house, and I was in bed within half an hour of getting into the house.  Andre reminded me that liturgy was at 7 in the morning, and I told him not to wait for me.

I hadn't planned on it, and I did not think it possible, but I was up and wide awake the next morning at 5:30.  I tried to go back to sleep, but couldn't.  I finally quit fighting it, got out of bed, stuck my head out the window (and it was COLD) and had a morning cigarette. 

I got to the chapel in time, attended mass, had some tea and bread for breakfast.  Afterward, everyone was in their room, no one had told me the schedule for the day, so I figured I would go on a quest for a Diet Coke (or "Coke Light" as the Europeans name it).

It was no warmer this day than the day before, but the good night's sleep helped me to bear it better.  I found a couple of small stores, one actually had my liquid of choice, but would not take my U.S. currency, so it was time to find a bank.  You got to be a dedicated Coke fan to put up with the biting, burning cold, made worse by the wind that would blow when I passed in between buildings, but I figured it was also a way to while away the time and see more of the city.

I found a bank, that had no money exchange, but they directed me to the new Marriot and their American Express office.  To get there, I had to cross the street by means of  underground tunnels, and was surprised to learn that it was a whole shopping complex, including a Winchell's Donuts and McDonalds - even an Office Depot.  I exchanged my money, found a soda, and then headed back to the house.

At lunch we were joined by the local Provincial and others.  It was a lunch with a lot of grinning and smiling at one another.  Sometimes I doubted the ability of Andre as translator, since they sometimes laughed at things that I did not think were humorous at all.  It really is difficult to be at the mercy of a translator).  After lunch, Andre informed me that we were going to be late for our appointment at the Vatican Embassy if we did not get a move on.  Well, that was a fine time to tell me.  I rushed back to my room, changed into priestly blacks, and we were out the door.  One of the guests was driving, and he did not seem to know the city very well, we went around the same block three or four times before we headed int he opposite direction and eventually found our way to the Embassy.

We were met at the door by a priest who ushered us into one sitting room, once we got our coats off and were comfortably seated, a secretary came in and ushered us to another room, asking us to take our coats with us.  From there, after just enough time to warm up the seats, we were ushered into yet another room.  Each time we were told to wait.  Andre was really getting very excited about all this.  He was sure that room by room, we were getting closer and closer to the very office of the Vatican Diplomat - I just thought that they did not know for sure what to do with us.  After a few minutes wait, a secretary joined us.  She handed us our Vatican Passports and asked us to sign them.  Andre could barely write his name, he was so excited, and asked when the Diplomat would be seeing us.  The secretary informed us that he wouldn't - poor guy, I really think that if we had been alone he would have broke into tears.  After signing the passports we were invited to leave, thank you very much.

In the trip back to the house, Andre kept fondling and reading and re-reading his passport.  I don't want to sound jaded or too blase' about the whole thing, but it was at this point that I first asked myself what it was I was getting myself into.  This was the man, were I to accept this mission, that I would be sharing community life with, and this reaction seemed a bit too much - for a passport.  

We were issued these passports because it was supposed to expedite our journey, and provide some protection against any anti-American or Polish problems that we might encounter.   Once we met the Pro-Nuncio for Central Asia, we were also supposed to be issued papers naming one of us cultural attache and the other an administrative attache.  Or at least that was the plan as I understood it, it was to turn into something else later on, but that would be jumping the gun a bit.  Getting back to the house, Andre went to his bedroom with his passport, and I went for another coke. 

After a couple of hours, it was time to go to the airport and leave.  The house rector went with us.  Andre does not fly much, I found out, and so I told him roughly what we were looking for and he would read the signs and find the place.  Throughout our traveling together, he never did quite catch on to the fact that we would need our tickets, passport and boarding passes over and over again.  He would use them to get through one gate and then stuff them back in his rather crowded bag, at the next gate he would then spend five minutes digging them out again, never quite sure what it was he was to be looking for, and so pulling it all out again. I tried to explain it all to him, he would listen, and then stuff his papers back in his bag.  Kind of scary when you stop to think that this is the man who was to be my interpreter all through this trip.   In this way we got checked-in and found our gate.  We had some time to kill, so Andre made some phone calls, and I wandered through the gift shops, not buying anything, just looking. 

We were heading to Kazakstan, and the capital city of Almaty.  We had to change planes in Moscow.  We arrived in Moscow about 8 in the evening, after passing through customs and such, we were told that our connecting flight was at the other airport.  I was warned of this prior to leaving the U.S. and was told it would cost at least $40.00 in American currency - in small bills.  I told Andre this, and he became insistent that we were not going to spend that kind of money to get someplace that, as he discovered, was only about 7 miles away. 

We walked out into the lobby area - it struck me as being more like the ground floor of a parking garage.  It was very dimly lit, clusters of men standing around ( where were the women?) cigarette smoke filled the air (no non-smoking areas here), the walls were bare concrete, there were a few kiosks in the area, but these were no better lit than the rest of the building.  I found myself checking my wallet over and over again.  As we entered this lobby, we were inundated by hordes of taxi drivers.  They seemed to know we were going to the other airport, and they knew enough English to offer us a ride there, and at varying prices.  I thought the guy who offered to take us for $25.00 was a pretty good deal, but Andre would have none of it.  He asked around at the various information booths and discovered that there was a free bus between this airport and the next.  The only information he did not quite get was where we were to find the bus.  We picked up our bags, entered the icebox that was the outside, and walked around looking for a bus stop. 

I looked at all the signs, but since they are in the Cyrillic alphabet, I had no luck.  I found myself doing that a lot during this trip - looking at signs in this very different alphabet - as if the simple act of staring at them would somehow open some door in my brain that would allow me to understand what it was they were trying to tell me - it never did happen.  Though, later on in my trip, I did learn the letters that spelled Bar and Cafe.  That was mainly because the English version of these words were often part of the same sign.

Andre finally found the bus stop, a bus arrived, and trusting Andre, we got on.  I set my bags down in front of a seat and immediately regretted doing so.  The floor of the bus reminded me of the wet lands near the church here in Juneau.  It was a frozen wash of mud and ice.  There were little snow banks in the corners of the bus, the windows were opaque with ice, the heat from my bags caused just enough melting to cover the bottom of my bags with a coating of slick mud.  There were no seats available, and the metal hand rails were so cold that even with my gloves on, they were feeling frost bitten from the cold metal.  The windows and doors of the bus seemed to have lost all their molding, and so the cold air moved through the bus, biting the skin and frosting the eyelids. 

It turns out the bus is not free, and the driver insists that we pay him, even as he drives the bus on its route.  Andre asks me if I have any ones, I don't.  He takes one of my five's and asks if anyone in the bus has change.  Some have small enough rubles to change a twenty, but not a five.  Finally Andre digs through his bag, and pulls out an envelope filled with Polish money and some American ones.  He gives the bus-driver two ones and that seems to be that.  However, when Andre does this, the passenger sitting next to where we are standing studies Andre and his stash of cash very carefully.  I notice this and watch the man rather carefully.  All through the remainder of the trip, he keeps eyeing Andre and then his bag, I have a bad feeling about all this and keep my eyes on the guy.  I finally catch his eyes and try to let him know through eye contact that I know what he is thinking.  I tell Andre to move his bag to a location between us, and to watch our fellow traveler rather carefully.  His seat is directly across from the door, and I have visions of him grabbing the bag and running.  When we move the bag, he looks at me and gives me a grin as if to say "you got me this time", and just then we make another stop and the man gets off... offering me a slight salute as he exits the bus.

We finally get to the International Airport, find a couple of seats at one end of this dirty, dim, barn like hallway that acts as a waiting room, and settle down for a 4 hour wait.  The seats are metal and cold, and so is the air.  Even after a couple of hours of sitting, the seats never seem to warm up, rather they act as conduits to rob and release whatever heat was in our sitting muscles.

We spend the time reading, (Andre fondles his passport a few more times, and I begin worrying about their relationship) , talking, and taking turns wandering around the airport - though there is nothing to see.  There are several kiosks selling everything from pre-mixed canned gin and tonics, to paper clips, but nothing I was very interested in.

After a while, a couple of guys sit next to us.  They speak some broken English, and we strike up a conversation of sorts.  They offer us some of the vodka they are drinking.  I refused. I wanted to remain as alert as possible for this trip, and Andre, as I discovered, did not drink.  I wonder if the other Oblates at the house in Warsaw also do not drink - and if not, what they thought of the gift of the gallon of Jim Beam I brought for them.

It turns out the two guys are pilots for the Russian airline and are on their way home to Magadan, Russia on a several week break.  They are intrigued about the fact that we are priests, and eventually get into a heated discussion with Andre (in the heat of it all they have stopped even trying to translate what is going on) about religion.  I am not sure of the entire gist of it all, but I think they were asking Andre to prove the existence of God.

Our flight was finally called for and we bid the pilots goodbye and headed toward our gate.  After filling out some more declaration forms, we were then directed to passport control.  Standing in line, I was fascinated with the process.  All the Russians use passports, even for travel within the country.  They would step forward, hand their passport to the agent, who would then compare the picture with the face in front of them.  Sometimes the agent would have the person hold their head at a different angle, have them look up or down, put their hand over a moustache or beard, even ask about a scar or blemish that was on the face, but apparently not on the photo.  It was the most diligent comparison that I had ever seen.  When we finally got to the front of the line, we encountered the first of many problems with our passports. 

Vatican passports are not a real common item.  Probably even less so in places like Russia and Central Asia.  The agent looked at the passport, recognized it as a foreign one, and so directed us to another agent in a booth.  That agent took the passport and looked and looked through it.  She said nothing to us, but it was clear that there was some sort of problem.  She called a supervisor, over to help her look.  The both of them then repeated the process of going through the passport page by page, looking and reading ( I am assuming they could read some of the Latin alphabet, but can't swear to it) and finally spoke to us. They asked what country these passports were from.  We told them the Vatican.  They then asked if we had further papers - nothing more than our customs declarations.  The passports had our names and other personal information hand written in them in rather fancy calligraphy.  This is a real departure from the more usual typed information that is found in most passports.  They were looking for our names.  They were also looking for the name of the country that issued the passport.  No where in the document does it say it is from the Vatican.  They use, instead, the more formal designation of the Holy See.  Well, unless you are Catholic, or Western, you probably don't know what that is.  After pointing out where our names were and which was the first and last name, they finally gave us the stamp and let us pass on.

We were then crowded onto one of those large airport transport buses - no seats, and even bigger snow banks and ice sheets than in the bus that brought us to the airport.  The windows were covered with at least a quarter inch of ice.  Again, the rubber stripping between the double doors of the bus had long ago fallen away, there were rust holes all over, and the cold air moved through freely.  Unfortunately, the only spots open were near these doors, and for some reason, after everyone was on the bus, we had to sit there for about 15 minutes.  Everyone was jumping in place, clapping their hands, doing whatever they could to get warm.

Finally,  we were moved to the site of our plane, were let off and ascended the stairs, cautiously because of the ice on the steps, into the plane.  Thank God the plane was warm - and crowded.    Unfortunately someone is already seated in my aisle seat, and is not willing to give it up.  Well, I didn't think it was worth making a scene about, so I took the middle seat between him and Andre.

It is a four hour flight.  Instead of a movie, they show American black and white cartoons and some sort of Polish action-adventure televison program.  It was a Fellini-type of situation.  The American cartoons had a Russian soundtrack playing over the audible original English.  And then the Polish program had an English soundtrack playing, with the original Polish audible.  They did serve a meal.  Apparently they had two different entree's available, but never asked if we had a preference.  The two meals served on either side of me were some sort of baked chicken.  I opened my container to find baked fish - oh well, I wasn't hungry anyway.


We arrive at our destination at about 8:00 A.M. local time. It ws now December 31st 1996.  The last day of the old year, and my first day in a foreign land, where depending on what we find here over the next few days, could be my future home.  Despite another night with no sleep, I am rather "pumped".  We are met by Fr. Maximo - an Italian - who works in the Consulate for the Pro-Nuncio.  He helps us load our bags into his car, and takes us to a complex of new and not yet completed buildings that is the site of the Catholic presence in Almaty.

  The complex is made up of a convent/ guest house, a priests-residence / medical clinic, and a yet to be completed church.  It is situated at what might be considered one of the edges of the downtown area in the middle of a very poor area.  The site is surrounded by a brick wall, and all around the exterior of the wall is a complex of very poor looking shacks and what can only be described as hovels.  Up the road are rows upon rows of large, concrete, very square, very plain apartment buildings.

  Kazakstan reaches from the Caspian Sea to China and from Siberia to the TIAN SHAHN mountain range, separating it from Turkmenistan.  It is more than twice the size of the 4 other Cental Asian republics combined, 3 times as big as France.   It is the 9th biggest country in the world.   It's also the least densely populated and richest of these countries.  It is the only Central Asian territory bordering on Russia.  The relative emptiness and remoteness of the country made it a great place (as far as the Russians were concerned) for unwanted Tsarist and Soviet subjects - Dostoevsky, Trotsky and Solzhenitsyn were all sent here, as well as entire peoples disliked or feared by Stalin.  It was here the Soviets hid many of their nuclear bomb tests and it served as the main launch center for their nuclear weapons.

The native peoples of Kazakstan are descendants of Genghis Khan's hordes.  They retain many of their nomadic ways, including bride-stealing.

Almaty is the capital of Kazakstan and has about 1.5 million people.  The city is not very old (founded in 1854 as a Russian frontier fort), nor very Kazak - it still retains a largely Russian influence... and most of the people speak Russian.  I am told that it is also Central Asia's most cosmopolitan city, and is currently greatly influenced by the outside (largely Western) world.  It is on the site of a Silk Road oasis which was laid waste by the Mongols.  Its original name is ALMA-ATA ("father of apples").

We are shown our rooms in the convent.  It is a building that is only a couple of years old and still maintains an air of newness.   The exterior is not yet finished, and scaffolding wraps the building in a skeleton of wood and steel.  The rooms are simple, plain and comfortable... and they have large bathrooms with showers (yay!).  The weather is much warmer here, and I am quite comfortable with just a sweater.  I get situated in my room and then take a smoke break outside.  The contractor is there, he speaks no English but wants to show me around the skeleton of the church, showing me the basement rooms, the bell tower, the work rooms, etc.  It takes a lot of imagination to see what it might look like when it is completed, but I have a feeling it is going to be quite impressive.  After my tour, I return to the house in time for breakfast.

There are about 6 Franciscan nuns living here, and about 4 Franciscan priests living in the rectory.  They all come from various places in the world - Italy, Poland, France, Japan, and others.  They share meals in the convent, and are all present for breakfast.  One of the priests is originally from Chicago.  He helps me to ask and answer questions and make comments to the others.  There is also a priest of Korean origin.  He is the doctor who runs the clinic at the rectory.  He is not a traditional doctor, but a practitioner of acupuncture.  He also hands out basic medicines and offers as much help as he can.  They also bring in medical doctors on a regular basis.  He tells me that they see about a thousand people a month, all from the local poor.

We had a pleasant breakfast, and one of the sisters, who speaks some very sparse English informs me that God has called me to this mission and that I can just plan to stay in Turkmenistan, because that is where I will be.  No subtleties here. I just smile, and said "we'll see" and finished my breakfast.  Afterward, I felt the need for some movement, so I went out for a walk.

I was wearing the liner of my coat, which was more than warm enough for the temperatures, even though a slight breeze had started during our breakfast.  It felt good to be moving after so much time on the plane.  It felt even more glorious to be dressed so lightly.  It had been months since I was able to venture outside in anything less than a coat.  I was relishing the feeling of being un-bound and swinging my arms with the joy of it all.  But, I couldn't help but feel that I was missing something.  As I looked at the people sharing the streets with me, they were in their heavy coats, many of them wearing the ankle length, brightly colored, heavy, quilted silk coats that are so common in Central Asia (in Turkmenistan they call them KHALATs).  Also, those big round fur hats (I later found out that they are generically called TELPEKs - at least in Turkmenistan) or ski caps pulled down over their ears.  It felt like we were each experiencing a different climate.  Oh well, I was enjoying mine.

 The street is lined with the huge concrete apartment buildings, and each cross street that I look down showed me more of the same.  The streets are all dirty, the sidewalk is but a muddy remnant of what must have been paved walkway in some other era.  Along the walkway there is a rather deep trench that is probably there to keep the water out of the streets, but it seems to be more of a communal waste can, filled with trash.  There are people who are sweeping the "sidewalk" and attempting to clean this gutter, but so few people against such a large amount of trash, I don't think they have a chance.  I'm sure that at the pace in which they are progressing, they simply find that the gutter fills up right behind them. 

I was reminded of the "projects" in New Orleans and Washington D.C., except that these seem worse.  I think it is the lack of color.  There is an overwhelming amount of gray, and no color in any of the windows, on the doors, or anywhere else that I can see - except in the trash piles that are here and there among the buildings.  Along the street, there are women who have set up street-side displays of gum, cigarettes, bottles of some sort of liquor, and a whole variety of sundries that might or might not be of use to some passing stranger... an occasional bar of soap, a comb, aspirins, etc.  Walking along the street, looking at these things lying on blankets or in brief cases and suitcases, I am sure that almost anything I might need is available to me, as long as I don't mind a little dirt, yellowed packaging, or un-labeled bottles.

In between these buildings, I spy a shack or two, sometimes small clusters of them all together, sometimes a single little shack set up in the yards of these concrete boxes.  There are sections of the street that are much like the area surrounding the church compound.  Large fences surrounded areas with little shanties, older small and decrepit houses, and jerry-rigged shacks all clustered together, the occasional child peering his head out to see the American walking down the street.  Chickens, cats, dogs, and even an odd burro or two can also be seen.   Quite a few of these buildings look no better built or more durable than the "forts" we used to make as kids.  I marvel that people actually live in them.

The people I encounter along the street will occasionally meet my eyes, but not very many will smile.  Their expressions are set and firm, they usually hurry past me or are slowly making their way along, looking as though they are searching for something.  The women all wear scarves, many of the men wear telpeks, almost everyone has their head covered.

I think I expected the Kazak people to look more like the Iranians I have known, dark and swarthy, mustached and gaunt.  There are those that might fit that description, but many of the people remind me more of East Europeans, more rounded in the face, lighter complexions.  And a great many of them bear a striking resemblance to the Eskimo people that I have met in Alaska.  Others bear the "typical" Russian look, and there is a definite Oriental influence in many of the faces I see.  I am told that we are only about 60 miles from the Chinese border, "just over the mountains" the Chicago Franciscan had informed me.  Those mountains establish a distant, fence-like border at one side of the city. 

 The osmosis had not set in since the night before, so I was still unable to read the street signs.  Just to play it safe, I decide that all my walking needs to be in straight lines so that I do not get lost.  I came to a cross-roads where my street intersected with what appeared to be a major thoroughfare, so, noting the English language billboard on the corner, I brave a left and continue my walk.  I was somewhat concerned about being able to find my way back, because the streets and buildings all look alike.

I come to a street literally lined with small kiosks and little shops all along it. There were, at times, up to twelve of them side by side, all connected to one another and sharing a single roof.  The brand names Marlboro or Coke were plastered all over them.   They seem to each carry the exact same things, just that one will have more some particular item than the others. There are people gathered around, some of the kiosks blare music onto the street, several of them in competition with one another, or so it seems.

There is a "strip mall" of sorts, a collection of pharmacies, bakeries, and general food stores.  All of them have as many empty shelves as full ones.  Inside the doorway to one of these, in a dark corner of its foyer, there is a door with a whole cut into it about chest level, and a small shelf nailed to outside the hole.  I discover, through observing the people coming and going, that this is a money exchange .  I slip a twenty to the face that is looking through the hole and a few minutes later receive a thick stack of the local currency (called TENGGE), all in thousands. 

The black market in currency exchange is quite prevalent in all of Central Asia.  In fact, at the borders, and as we entered various towns or bazaars, etc., it became a common sight for the locals to be waving stacks and stacks of currency at us... all of them looking to exchange it for U.S. currency.  At times we were able to get more than a thousand more per dollar than was offered at the official exchange centers or banks.  In the bazaars, the women in their long skirts, squatting near their wares, or just along the walkways, always had very large piles of money underneath their skirts, and were always willing to give hefty exchange rates.  At one market area, the young men were more aggressive, practically surrounding our car as we pulled into the parking lot and waving their stacks of bills at us.  Saying no to one simply meant that someone else would try.  At one point I tried to sell them back some of the money I had - no one was buying.

This street-exchange was not fully legal, but I am told that the officials usually just looked away, I am sure it is because they would have to arrest entire villages if they were going to enforce the law. 

 With a pocket full of tengge, I made my way from one shop to another, one kiosk to the next... pursuing a Coke Light.  No one seemed to carry it - there was plenty of regular Coke, but nothing in Light.  Finally, in one of the larger grocery stores (scale down the notion of such a thing to about the level of half a convenience store - though spread out in a building the size of a small warehouse), I found the elusive Coke Light.  However, they were warm, and I decided that since I now knew where the lode was kept, I could give the cans a chance to cool down and come back later.  Later never came.  What do they say - strike while the iron's hot - I should have known better.  Instead, I continued my exploration.

  I'd almost forgotten it was the last day of the year, but the exploding firecrackers and other, far more powerful explosives going off all up and down the streets reminded me.  Occasionally a bottle rocket would fly by, and the fact that they were flying into the traffic seemed to bother no one at all.  Not even when the cars were hit.

I got to a more crowded area of the street, lots of people passing through the gate of a tin fence.  I looked through the gate and saw that it was an outdoor market of sorts.  I decided not to wander through, I was being pushed and jostled by the people on the street enough as it was, and the crowds moving from one booth to the next seemed too large and chaotic.  I just did not think I would find the whole thing pleasurable... though I was curious to get a view of what sort of things were being sold.

Parked on the street, in front of this fenced in market place were several big trucks - looking like army transport trucks.  One was filled with crates and crates of some un-labeled bottles of liquid - beer? alcohol? juice of some sort?  I never knew.  But there were crowds of people gathered around to buy the bottles, often several cases at a time.  The next truck was selling eggs. Others had piles of some sort of melons, etc.  Passing by, and trying to look in, I continued to be pushed, reached around and jostled this way and that.

I eventually make my way back to the convent.  When I arrive, it is to another collection of guests who are joining us for the evening meal.  Bishop Jan Lenga who is the administrative Bishop of Central Asia; Archbishop Marian Oles' the Pro-Nuncio for Central Asia (or at least most of it - but I will get back to that); the Nuncio's driver Pawel, Fr. Maximo, and several others.  They were here to meet Andre and myself, and to share an end-of-the-year dinner prepared by the nuns.

It was a grand meal.  The Nuncio speaks pretty good English, among a number of other languages.  The Bishop seems to have very minimal English, but a great smile, which he flashed as often as I did... universal language of embarrassment and being lost.   The meal included several types of meats - not all of them recognizable by me.  Potatoes, pickles, eggs, squash, and a salad made up of strips of cabbage, carrots, onions and turnips - with some sort of bitter pickling sauce over it.  This was a common dish throughout Central Asia, and one that I avoided as often as it was served.  There were many other dishes, wine, and lots of deserts. 

  There was not a whole lot being said about the Turkmenistan mission itself.  There was an over-riding sense that it was a finished issue, that I and Andre and others would be going to start up something there.  This was an error that I tried to correct as often as possible.  Making it very clear that at least I was there for a fact-finding or look and see exploration.  Andre, on the other hand, had us already living there and massive amounts of converts knocking at the doors of our newly built (and quite massive) church. 

It was during the meal that I learned that Kazakstan is a real mixture of peoples and religions.  The fanatic Muslims are not so much in control as I would have thought.  In fact, many of the priests related the same thing to me.  That although culturally they would have been a Muslim people, the 60 years of enforced atheism by the Communist leaders, and the suppression of all religious expression has caused the people to really lose contact with their religious, and in many ways, cultural roots.  This means that there are not very many religious problems between people, the dominant attitude toward religion seems to be indifference.  Lately however, the newly elected government of the country, one with a few more Muslim attitudes, has become a bit harder on the local Catholic missionaries.  They are not up front about it, but there are subtle aggravations imposed - like having to renew their visas every 3 months instead of once a year as in the recent past.  They are hoping that with the further development of the nunciature in the country, some of this will be changed for the better.

  After the meal, which went on for several hours, Maximo took Andre and myself on a sight-seeing tour, the Nuncio was going home.  Unfortunately, our little tour was cut short by Andre's insistence that we be at the church in time for the evening mass.  That gave us only an hour and a half to have our tour.  Since we were clear across town from the church, we would not be going very far.  I think I could have missed mass.. How often do I get to Kazakstan?  But it is so hard to argue with someone who wants to go to church, and I was put at the disadvantage of not being able to communicate this to Maximo. 

We drove into the mountains.  There was some snow and ice once we started to gain some altitude, and the car was not the best, having a hard time getting too high.  There was a rather large stadium and recreation facility built along the mountain slopes.  There were small cabins and camping areas - as though it were a place that people would come to spend the weekend.  The stadium looked sound, though a bit run-down.  There was a huge bronze sculpture on the back of the rear wall of the stadium.  A depiction of ice skaters.  There was no opportunity to stop and take photos, Andre was keeping a close watch on the time.

We eventually came to a point where the car was spinning its wheels and making no forward progress, so we turned around and started back down and headed toward the church.

This is not the same church that is part of the convent complex in which we are staying.  This church is a medium sized house in which the walls have been torn down in order to make a single room that has served as the local church since the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and the coming of the Catholics some five years ago.

The mass had already begun, the Bishop was presiding, Andre and Maximo rushed in, literally ran through the sanctuary crossing in front of the bishop and other concelebrating priests, into the sacristy where they vested for Mass.  As he reached a point directly between the people and the Bishop, Andre turned around and motioned me to join them.  I decided that I would just sit down, quietly, with the congregation, and not add to any more of the distraction that they were causing.  How rude!

  As far as I could tell, the mass went rather well.  Though the Bishop did speak for about 40 minutes, and as I looked around the congregation, there were many of them nodding off, reading their little prayer books or distracting one another.  It was a congregation of about 20 people.... most of them foreigners to the country, people who were working for the government or for international companies - Poles, Russians, etc., only a couple of Kazaks.  The mass was conducted in a way that I would have associated with the 1950's in this country.  When it came time for communion, I went up and, unlike the others, did not stick out my tongue, but offered my hands.  This seemed to take the Bishop by surprise, as though he was wondering what I was doing.  He paused briefly and then eventually placed the host in my hand.  I later asked Andre if in Poland they offered communion in the hand.  He let out with a rather abrupt and emphatic "NO!" which closed all discussion of the matter.  It was at that point that I knew that if I were indeed to become part of this mission, there would have to be some long discussion about what liturgical expressions we would using.  There was a definite difference of opinion about what church we were going to operate out of.  After communion, and before the final blessing, the Bishop led the people in Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction.  I could not believe it.  It ran against almost every liturgical principle I had come to accept as normative.  There would definitely have to be some discussions.

After mass, Maximo invited Andre and I to go to his house for the evening.  He lives in community with 2 other Italian priests, one of them is a full time teacher at one of the local universities, and there were 3 other Italian priests from other parts of Kazakstan staying at the house for a few days as well.  Although they are all diocesan priests, they have formed some sort of community as Italian priests, and apparently gather several times a year for prayer, discussion and mutual support.  It sounded like fun.

 On the way to his apartment, we stopped off at the local Russian Orthodox Cathedral.  Known as ZENKOV CATHEDRAL.  It is one of Almaty's few surviving tsarist-era buildings (most of the others wrecked in earthquakes in 1911).  It doesn't look like it, but the whole thing is built out of wood - and without nails.  It was used as a museum and concert hall in the Soviet era and eventually boarded up.  The Cathedral sits in the middle of a park like lawn.  It was only recently returned to the Orthodox by the government ( in 1995), and they were celebrating some sort of year-end service.  We got there for the last 10 minutes or so.  The chanting and sung responses to the rather powerful cantoring was truly impressive, even glorious.  The smell of incense pervaded the entire building, and the numerous icons glistened, as they reflected back the light of what must have been hundreds of candles.

 Maximo spoke with the presider, the cathedral reactor, after the service ended.  They were apparently friends.  I was wandering through the church, looking at the many icons and paintings, one older man approached me and clucked his tongue at me, saying something I could not understand, but which was certainly a reprimand.  I had no idea what I did wrong.  Maximo came up behind me and told me that I should take my hands out of my pockets, that walking around in that way inside the church was showing a lack of respect.

 Entering Maximo's apartment, we were introduced to the other priests, one of them spoke a little English, and we said evening prayer together.  Or at least they and Andre did, I listened.  One of the guys was making supper for the bunch of us, but it was running late, and one rather large priest was making a big scene of the fact that they had to wait so long.  It seems he had taken a rather long hike into the mountains that day and was hungry as could be.  The cook finally silenced him by serving up a large plate of antipasto and bread.  Well, after the meal that afternoon, and the antipasto, I was not in any mood to eat the large amount of pasta that was eventually served to me, no matter how good it smelled.  I was only able to eat enough of it and the sausage that went with it to be polite.  After all that, and several glasses of very good wine, I was more than ready for bed.  It had been a very long day, and I had not really slept on the plane from Moscow.

 Maximo finally took us home, even though that meant he was missing whatever other courses of the meal that the cook was busily getting ready in the kitchen.   The ride back was a very dark one.  It seems, in order to conserve money, there are no street lights kept on after about 7:00 or so, except on one or two major arteries in the city.  When we arrived at the convent there was lots of noise coming from the direction of the dining room.  The bishop (who was also staying at the convent) was downstairs with the Franciscans and they were continuing the year-end celebration.  I had a pre-bed smoke and went to sleep with the sound of firework explosions coming from the residential areas all around.

 I woke up the next morning feeling rather rested and ready to attack the day.  I got up about 6:30 and there was enough light outside that I thought I would go out for a short walk and smoke.  Well, the front door was dead-bolted, as was every other exit I could find.  And there was no one else up and around as far as I could tell.  I found out later that the community had partied downstairs until about 10 that night and the repaired to the house chapel, on the third floor for prayer until midnight.  So, they were not going to be up too early at all.

  I felt like a prisoner, with no way out, and the more locked doors I found, the more I wanted a cigarette.  Luckily, there was a section of scaffolding level with the large window in my room.  I sat out on the scaffolding, listening to the morning sounds of the hovels across the fence, the roosters crowing, watching the donkey carts being loaded and led away, the cars crawling down the pot-holed road, and the fireworks still being set off.

Eventually I heard sounds coming from other parts of the house.  I made my way down to the dining room.  I joined the three nuns who were down there for a bit of breakfast, asked them to unlock the door and took off for another walk around Almaty.

It was New Years Day, and most all the stores were closed - including the one that sold Coke Light- but all the kiosks were open, and seemed to be doing rather good business, especially of fireworks, the sounds of which never seemed to have ended since the afternoon before.  I re-traced my steps from the day before.  There was a slight drizzle in the air, but I figured that it would clear up as the morning progressed - it did, but not until after a rather hard down-pour that had me running back in the direction of the convent.  By the time I got to the place where I needed to turn, the rain made a sudden stop, the clouds were breaking up, the sun was starting to peep out, and I was soaked.  I decided to continue my walk and try to dry off.

I found myself crossing over a rather large river bed.  There were rather nice looking parks on either bank, a pavilion, picnic tables, what looked to be a row-boat rental place, and all sorts of recreational goodies.  Only one thing was missing...there was no water in the river.  Oh, there was a trickle of a creek running through the center of it, but nothing to justify the recreational set-up.  Embedded in the mud of the river bed were lots of old tires, bottles, cans, trash of all sorts.  It really made me wonder what was going on.  Later on I found out that they dammed the river during the winter months and opened the waterway in the summer when it becomes quite a popular recreational site.

I walked through a bus station that fulfilled every pre-dissolution Communist movie I had ever seen.  Bare, dark, not in the best shape, and lots of echoing concrete and marble.  Groups of people sitting around waiting for their bus, ticket counters with very little chit-chat, passports required.

I got back to the convent for what I though was going to be a meeting with the Nuncio, but turned out to be a celebration meal.  A big lunch, rivaling the meal of the night before, only with champagne this time.  The nuns were having fun uncorking the bottles of bubbly, shooting the corks at one another, and drenching the bishop, his meal, and the area all around him.  This caused a lot of laughter from all those present, and the nun responsible turned every shade of red imaginable.

  The meal featured different dishes from each of the countries represented by the various members of the community, everything from Kim-shee in honor of the Koreans, to local delicacies that included horse meat (or so I was to find out later - not bad really, and I did eat plenty of it). 

  After the meal and the conversation drifted away with the wine and champagne, I decided it was time for another walk.  I went in an opposite direction this time, and found myself in the midst of rambling paths leading through more small and run-down shanties.  I passed through these areas and found my way to a very wide parkway.  It was a strip of park-land that was bordered on either side by streets, and the streets were lined by more boxy apartment buildings.  These seemed to be a bit better kept up, and the whole park area was much cleaner.  The strip of park seemed to go for miles, and I enjoyed the walk.  There were a number of statues, many of the buildings still sported bronze communist stars, and even the occasional likeness of Lenin and other.  Although cleaner, the primary colors, other than the trees and occasional flowering plants, were provided by advertisement signs and the little kiosks that were scattered here and there along the parkway.

 I walked and walked, there were plenty of people out walking as well.  But, as the sun began to set, the crowds seemed to thin.  I took a side street that looked pretty interesting, and found myself in the midst of another little shanty town.  I decided to walk through the area.  It was time for the evening meal, and the smoke coming from the various shacks was incredibly thick.  At one point it was so thick that I began to choke, and I was unable to see 10 feet in front of me.  As I tried to move out of the area, I suddenly realized that I had gotten all turned around and was not sure in which direction I needed to go.  The more I wandered, the thicker the smoke seemed to get, and I really thought I was going to be sick.  Eventually I did find my way back to the parkway.  I would mention this to one of the priests later that evening and he pointed out that this was pretty typical at meal times in these places, and that there were a number of deaths that came from suffocation from the smoke.  Incredible.

 Well, by this time it was pretty dark, and I was not feeling too well, so I headed back to the convent.  Unfortunately, by the time I got to the compound, everyone else was gone.  They had apparently gone to church.  With the dark came the cold and a slight drizzle.  There was no way to get into the buildings, so I sat on the cold concrete porch, out of the rain, and waited.

  As I sat there, a woman from one of the hovels on the other side of the fence squeezed between two boards in the fence and came to look me over.  I had seen her earlier that day in the complex and at the prayer after lunch, so I assumed she had reason to be there... maybe some sort of watchman (watch-person) for the complex.  She came to me and asked me several questions in Russian (or maybe Kazak), and did not seem to understand that I was not understanding her.  She would ask her questions, walk away, and then return again to say something more to me.  She did this a couple of times, and eventually squeezed back through the fence back to what I assumed was her house.  Several minutes later, this babushka returned and we went through the process again.  She eventually walked to the other end of the complex and turned her head as though she were looking away, but it was apparent by her side-long glances that she was keeping an eye on me.  Eventually she even gave that up too, went back through the fence, and I saw no more of her.

Finally, the Franciscans returned, and none too soon, I was cold, tired, and wet... and needed to use the bathroom badly.

Bright and early, the next morning (Jan. 2) the Nuncio and his driver showed up at the convent.  We loaded up the car, and took off for Turkmenistan via Uzbekistan.  The Nuncio's car is a Mercedes, and he seems quite proud of it, as does his driver.  I will say that it certainly catches the eyes of many of the people we encounter along the way and from other drivers along the road.  At all border crossings and every time we stop to ask directions or just stretch we are being asked who we are, where we are heading and whose car is it.  The driver, Pawel, is very proud of it and likes to claim it as his own.

Pawel was born in Kazakstan, but is of Polish heritage.  His folks both came over from Poland.  For this reason, he is not considered, by the government as truly Kazak.  His Polish heritage prevents him from getting jobs in the government and other sorts of perks.  He is somewhat resentful of this and talks of leaving Central Asia.  He is 30 years old or so, unmarried, though occasionally dates.  I told him that he would never get a wife if he spent all his time with priests and nuns, he likes that and smiles about it.  He got the job as the Nuncio's driver about 2 years ago.  He was not really doing much with his life, and the Nuncio needed a driver.  Although he had lived in the area all his life, it seems that the Nuncio was always directing him which way to go and where this or that place was located. 

Pawel apparently has trouble following through on things.  The Nuncio sent him to Ireland for a few months to learn English.  He went, he did well, but refused to practice too much when he returned, and so has lost a lot of it.  The Nuncio then helped pay for some other types of schooling for him, and he went for months and then would stop.  He was constantly talking about being tired and hungry, though he ate more than the rest of us, and got just as much sleep.  He struck me as being just a little bit on the lazy side.  But, he was pleasant, a lot of fun when we could understand one another's jokes, and he loved to rib the Nuncio.  They seemed to argue occasionally, and Pawel would pout a bit when the Nuncio made decisions that he did not like.  I really wondered at times why the Nuncio put up with it.   But I suspect they both enjoy even the harassment they give each other.


We were on the road by 7:30 that morning and were planning a long days drive to the capital of Uzbekistan - Tashkent.  Of course, I was not privy to the plans as we proceeded, though everyone else in the car seemed to know the agenda for the day.  Oh well, I figured I would just go along for the ride (what choice did I have) and we would go wherever we would go.  Only occasionally during the day did I wonder what the hell we were doing and where we were going.

We were on the interstate "highway"- more like a one lane country road.  It reminded me very much of the old rural routes back home.  The edges of the hiway were eaten away, the markings in the road were not real clear.  Pot holes, rough spots, sparse and incorrect signs, and Pawel driving like a bat out of hell.  He did like to go fast, I will give him that.  And the Nuncio seemed not to mind it too much himself.  I was amazed that the road could accommodate three cars abreast, though Pawel made it happen quite frequently.  The speed, the pulling up to cars with mere inches between us, all of it would have been a bit frightening had I spent too much time thinking about it.  Instead, I would bury my head in a book or look out the side.  It was all a bit too much at times.  The basic rule of the road seemed to be "do the best you can, and don't hit anyone - if possible."  Mexico has more rules than that, and I always thought that they were bad.

We share the roads with donkey carts, goat carts, horses, and anything else that might have wheels or be able to transport a person.  It was not too uncommon to see small donkeys carrying, what always seemed like over-sized riders on their back.  Many of the carts seemed to have been put together out of pieces and parts of old military vehicles, and many of them (especially the wooden ones) couldn't have been held together by much more than baling wire and prayer.

As we get out of the city, we enter a countryside that clearly reminds me of Montana or Wyoming, at other times you would swear we were driving through South Texas.  Large hills and valleys, the mountains in the background are bare and snow-capped.

Conversation was done in spurts.  Questions about the people, the mission, the Nuncio's past work in Iran, the Arab Emirates and other places.

Occasionally we pass through small villages.  Simple, run-down houses, people lining the streets waving money at us or sitting next to the bottles of dark liquid, fruits and vegetables that they are trying to sell.  At any and all major intersections (though that was a difficult determination) there would be the Marlboro or Coke emblazoned kiosk or two.    Now and then we see the round shelters, sort of a much more solid tent-like structure, but round.  They call them YURTS's.  The shepherds put up these yurts and use them as shelter from the sun and elements when watching their sheep.   We pass by herds of sheep, goats and cows; now and then having to wait for a shepherd to lead his flock across the road.  There are quite a few cows that are especially furry, I am not real familiar with the breed. 

  Quite often, the entrance to the villages are marked by a cemetery off to the side and bit away from the road.  Most of the grave markers are Islamic, with the Islamic Crescent indicating the faith.  Those cemeteries that also accommodated Christians, had their graves in a separate area.  Certainly don't want the two faiths fraternizing in the ground.

It always struck me as odd when, passing through these rather remote and small villages, we saw the grand monuments and statues that must have been erected under the communist regime.  There are statues of local heros, national heros, communist heros, and many dedicated to the workers.  I would suppose that they were never torn down because the people didn't really care one way or the other, and the task would not have been worth the effort.

Now and then we pass by a collection of homes that must have pre-dated the Communists.  They are small, square, at-one-time-neat little homes.  Some of them with bright colored trim, doors and windows.  The gates to their fences are ornate and nice.  If these are representative of what it was like before the huge, square, concrete pre-fab apartments, it was very nice and simple.

Tashkent is at the border of the country, as are most of these capitals, and so the entrance into Uzbekistan was also our entrance into the city.   After about 10 hours of driving, we arrive.   We pass through a huge archway indicating that we were entering the city limits.  Even in the smallest of villages and towns, there is usually an archway of some sort.  Some more ornate than others with Muslim decorations and written into the top of each one is a Muslim quote from the Koran that offers a blessing to all those who pass through the gates.

Uzbekistan is noted as the most historically fascinating of the Central Asian countries.  Within it are some of the worlds oldest towns, some of the Silk Road's main centers and most of Central Asia's architectural attractions. It is also said that it has the worst attitude towards visitors and that politically, the old USSR is alive and well.  Though, I also heard a lot about their trying to make clear breaks from the old USSR, having recently made Kazak the official language and switching from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin... in order to further distinguish themselves.  They achieved their independence in August of 1991.  It is the most densely populated of the Central Asian countries, and is about the size of Sweden.  Most of it is flat desert or steppe.

Tashkent is Central Asia's hub - its biggest and worldliest city (the 4th biggest population in the old USSR after Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev).  For a city its size, there is not that much to see beyond the museums (that we never got to).  There are few signs of its 2,000 year history thanks to a huge earthquake in 1966 and the re-building that the Soviets did.... bulldozing much of the old quarter of the city.

Our original plans, I learned later, were to make a quick visit to the local priest and then find ourselves a hotel room.  We got to the parish house.  A relatively larger building, enclosed by a concrete fence, the drive way into the gated area was a very narrow strip between the house and the building next to it.  Barely had room to squeeze the Mercedes through the gap. 

The house is actually half of a larger duplex.  The other side is occupied by the local rabbi and synagogue.  It is an interesting arrangement.  It is set into a local neighborhood of similar houses and buildings.  The house has been added to and includes other buildings and structures squeezed into the fenced-in area, including a small chapel, with a room attached and a garage and workshop.  The house is definitely an older building, the walls and frames showing the sag of age.  The bathroom is an interesting arrangement - a long, narrow room with a toilet at one end, a free-standing tub that looks permanently stained with black, a very small washer/dryer and a sink.  There is also a water heater stuffed into here.  Pipes and wires run all around the room here and there, looking like the result of some crazed amateur plumber and electrician.  I often felt dirtier coming out of the room than before I went in.

The Franciscan who is the pastor here (Fr. Christopher), and the only priest in the city is a real rabbit of a man.  Thin, balding, dressed in sweats and a baseball cap, zipping from here to there, engaging in a five minute conversation and then jumping to the phone to make a call, always moving, always hopping around.  It could be exhausting just watching him.  He insisted that we stay there.  Andre and I are put up in the guest house outside.  It is really a dusty, musty and all too warm room.  With two couch-beds that add to the dust in the room every time they are touched.  There is a huge, asbestos wrapped furnace in the corner of the room that spews heat and some sort of white ash.  It is not going to be a real pleasant place to stay, but it is even worse for Pawel, who gets to try to make himself comfortable on the love seat in the living room.  The Nuncio is put up in the big guest room in the house.  I guess we all have our rankings made quite clear.

  After putting our things away, we load up in the car and go to the church for the evening daily mass.  The church (their cathedral) lies more towards the city center.  It is a huge building, sitting on a small hill overlooking the homes, apartments, and city buildings that surround it.  It also gives a nice view of the CHIRCHIK river, running through one end of the sprawling city.  It is being built on the site of the Cathedral that was here many years prior.  That original church was largely destroyed in earthquakes during the 1950's and was finally razed many years later.  They are re-building in much the same exterior style of the original.  With large, gothic spires, a courtyard that surrounds the building on the upper level, and a small reservation chapel, meeting room and rectory on the bottom level.  It is still about a year from being completed.  The main church is not yet complete, and mass was being held in the Reservation Chapel downstairs. 

 The chapel is quite bare and done in a white marble.  They managed to get it tiled just in time for Christmas I was told.  There is an altar, that seems too big for the space, too long and too imposing.  Instead of regular seats, there are large blocks of sorts, on which three or four people can sit, several of these on either side of the wall facing each other, so it is set up in a "choir" style.  Really quite nice.  Not overly done, and comfortable. 

The Nuncio is very much into building churches in all these various cities.  He feels it is important to have the physical presence of a church to speak to the people as well as the ministers.  It makes a lot of sense in so many ways.  The Catholics, like the Russian Orthodox and others are trying to get the various governments to return those church buildings and sites that were taken away when the Communists came in.  In some cases the buildings no longer exist, or the sites have different buildings on them, but it struck me that, although there is lots or red tape, the governments are reasonably cooperative - especially if there will be re-furbishing or building.  They are very much into bringing their cities and countries up to date.  The influx of money and work doesn't hurt either.

 Surprisingly, there were about 15 people at mass, other than us.  6 of them are members of the Daughters of Charity.  They came to Tashkent a couple of years ago.  Mother Teresa sent them here, and is trying very hard to get a community of her sisters in each of these countries, but not all of the governments are being as cooperative as was Uzbekistan.  So far, this is their only house in Central Asia.  Andre , in talking with them, decided that they would be coming to Turkmenistan as well, once he and I get there, build our church and open the doors to the throngs dying to get in.  A good fantasy.

The official language of the order is English, and so I am able to converse with most of the nuns.  Most of them have come right from Calcutta, but three of them are from three other countries (Poland, Korea and ??).  They really seem to enjoy being with one another.  They laugh, they tease one another, and they simply take delight in being with one another.  That is so good to see and it is infectious.  They invite me to come and say mass for them the next morning (at 7:00 AM) and Andre accepts for me.  He is a bit disappointed when I don't agree to let him preach.  I figured that they asked me, so I would say the words.

From the church, we went to a house to eat supper.  Fr. Christopher's house keeper feeds him at her own home each evening.  Until I discovered that fact, I was quite confused.  We came into the apartment, a nice, clean, if somewhat dark and over-furnished place (which sort of seems the norm.. The houses don't have enough space for the things the people have.  There are very few closets or cabinets, so they must have credenzas, china cabinets, etc. in which to keep their things), were shown to a table in a room off from the kitchen, and were served by this family.  I thought we were going to eat with them, but they never joined us.  It made me feel a bit uncomfortable, until I asked and they explained.  They provided us with some very good wine as well (I guess it was because the Nuncio was present).  I think the Nuncio and I killed about 2 bottles of the stuff.

 During dinner we talked of our plans for Turkmenistan.  The Nuncio wants to present us as Vatican attache's.  He already has the papers drafted.  Andre will go as the cultural attache', I will be the administrative attache'.  We are also going in as professors - me in English and theology; Andre as a professor of Catholic Cultural studies, or something like that.  The Nuncio figures this will give us an "in", and expedite some matters for us (like the Vatican passports were going to do... right).  Anyway, it is another one of those moments when I am struck by the fact that there are some assumptions being made that I did not come with.  I was told to come and see, to look it over, to consider it, but to also be free to say if I did not think it would work.  The Nuncio and Andre are both assuming it is a finished deal.  I try to straighten them out, but they do not seem to hear me.  Oh well, we will just continue our trip with separate ideas about it all.  In fact, the Nuncio even makes some remark that he was a little surprised when we first met up with him... he had the impression that one of us was going to be staying, not returning, in order to get things started... surprise!

 When we got back from dinner, it was not yet too late (only about 8:30 or so) and so I decided to go for a short walk.  Although we were staying in a residential area, it was only a block or so off one of the main arteries through the city, so I thought it would give me a chance to see the evening life of Tashkent a bit.   I walked to the main street which, instead of being kiosk after kiosk, most of the businesses located on the street were in pretty typical looking office-like spaces that were all along the street.  Typical looking from the outside anyway, but as sparsely stocked as in Almaty.  There were very few kiosks, and more store-fronts - this probably had something to do with the fact that we were closer to the heart of the city than we were in Almaty.  On one side of the street, sitting in the middle of a rather large mall area was a market of sorts... with a huge rounded dome of a covering.  It looked pretty impressive, but was all closed down by this time.  I walked and passed a few restaurants, bars, and even something that identified itself as a disco, but I really did not hear any music coming from it.

  I continued walking and looking, and found myself in a rather large park-like area.  At the other end of it looked to be some bright lights, and so I thought I would head in that direction, through the park and look at the monuments and fountains that were scattered throughout.

As I made my way along the path through the park, there was a cop sitting and talking to someone on one of the park benches.  I should mention that all the policemen, soldiers, and border patrol people continue to wear the uniforms that the Russians had used.  These countries are not able to outfit their soldiers and officials with new uniforms, so they use what they have and what is available.  The only way to tell the officer of one country from another is by the patches they wear.

  Anyway, they noticed me about the same time I noticed them.  And to my surprise the officer waved me over.  I thought it was to bum a smoke as I had just lit one up.  He wanted a smoke all right, and something more as well.  The officer knew a very few words in English, and his friend knew a few others.  They asked where I was from, where I was going, where I was staying, and what I was doing.  None of it seemed too bad, I thought that they were just being curious about why an American was wandering the streets of their city.  It became a bit more serious when the officer ( a young man, probably no more than 23 years old or so) asked me for my passport.  I tried to indicate that it was where I was sleeping.  He, in response, through gestures, indicated that I might end up sleeping behind bars.  The Nuncio had my passport.   He was going to take it to the state department the next morning and get the visas for Turkmenistan, and so I did not have it on me.  When I tried to explain that I was staying "just over there a few blocks", it struck me that I did not know any sort of address or phone number - if I got into trouble, this could be problematic.  The officer, who had been rather jovial and sort of humorous up to this point, suddenly turned very serious.  Through hand and body gestures, he and his friend wanted to know if I was looking for alcohol, drugs or whores.  I indicated that I was not.  They then decided that I needed to be searched.  They had me pull out everything out of all my pockets - even checking to see if the pen in my pocket was actually a knife of some sort.  They took special interest in my wallet, the various credit cards, and, of course, the amount of cash I was carrying.  Satisfied that I was not carrying drugs or guns, they returned it all.

  The officer then indicated that he was going to call a transport and have me spend the night in jail; he also insisted on showing me that he was packing a gun at least three times.  Now, up to this point, I was thinking that all of this was rather absurd and curious, and was almost enjoying it.  I was even toying with the idea of letting them take me, but rationality quickly set back in.  The officer began putting on a tough guy act.  I believe he was trying to scare me, and his friend kept making the sign for cash... rubbing his fingers together.  I was getting the point.

We had talked about this sort of thing in the car.  We had been pulled over at intersections in some of the cities and towns we had passed through to get here.  In most towns there were several cops standing around watching the traffic, and occasionally pulling cars over.  When they did, Pawel would tell them that this was a diplomatic car, and most of the time we were then allowed to continue, occasionally they wanted to see the diplomatic papers first.  All of them wanted to know who these important people were who were being driven around.  It was all a curiosity, and very much a pain in the butt for Pawel (he would really get indignant that they would pull over a car with diplomatic license plates).  Anyway, the Nuncio indicated that they often did this in order to get a bribe.  Most of the people in these countries averaged  $10.00 per month in wages, so supplemented their income anyway they could.  The nuncio seemed very understanding of it, and said he would be happy to pay, if that is what it took, but it never came to that for us.

Back to the park.  Deciding it best, I dug out my wallet and pulled out whatever amount of the local currency I had on me ( a little less than $20.00 worth) and offered the whole bundle to the cop.  He would not even look at it, and his friend said "U.S"... Ohhhhh!  Well, then I pulled out the 2 fives I had with me, and the cop just snickered.  His friend reached over and looked at my wallet and pointed to the fifty that I had there.  I offered the twenty instead.  They both sneered this time.  Well, I indicated, then take me to jail  (Actually, all of this was done in hand gestures... two fingers from each hand crossed over one another like a fence was the sign for prison bars) and they both simply looked at me.  I was attempting to call their bluff a this time, but the officers's face was getting a little more heated, and his eyes were growing a little narrower... bluff or not, I was no longer so sure of myself.  So, I pulled out the fifty and offered that.  Well, for the first time the cop himself made some motions regarding the money and decided that he needed two of the fives as well.  I was no longer finding this too much fun, or very interesting, so I handed him what he wanted.... and they let me go.

I decided to cut my walk short and returned to the house.  I was a bit miffed about it, but the walk cooled me down, and then it just became one more thing I get to write about in this trip log.

I got to the house where I found the Nuncio and Fr. Christopher sitting at the dining room table, talking and sharing some vodka.  The nuncio decided that I needed to have one too.  He said  that I should not really have been out without my passport, and I indicated that I would not have been, had he not insisted on taking them.  Well, we laughed about it, we talked about it, and we kept pouring from the vodka bottle.  Christopher had given up after his second shot, but the nuncio and I continued until the bottle was empty.  It was during this time over the bottle, that the Nuncio expressed some rather anti-Semitic feelings and indicated that he had some real belief in certain world-conspiracy notions.  This surprised me a bit... I would not have believed he would hold such notions.  Oh well, we all have our prejudices I suppose.  With the bottle dead, I went back to my room, staggering just a little - increasing instability of the planet, no doubt; also too much vodka - made it to the hot house of a room and fell asleep.

  Andre made sure I was up and at 'em early the next morning.  He did not want us to miss the time with the nuns, and asked again if I was sure that I wanted to preach, that he was more than happy to do it for me.  I assured him that I was more than prepared.

  The sisters live on the 7th floor of one of those concrete monstrosities.  The elevator was not working (had not been working for at least 2 years, I was told, but it was on the owner's list of things to get done).  We took the stairs.  Like walking up the stairs of a tenement.  Trash all over, doors that are banged around, some with patched holes, windows facing the stairwell were heavily barred, boarded or just broken with a heavy curtain on the inside.  The sisters live in a larger apartment - possibly two with the wall in between removed.  There is a chapel in the house.  I did the mass, and there was a certain thrill of doing English again.  They sang English Christmas carols, and we simply had fun.  They asked me to lead them in a round of jingle bells.  Despite my hesitancy of singing in public, I gave them a rendition... what the heck, they were foreigners, what do they know if I sing it wrong.

  The sisters then insisted that we stay for breakfast.  They fried some eggs and served them with an Indian version of flour tortillas... a bit thicker, whole wheat, but definitely a tortilla thing.  They were pretty good.  The conversation largely revolved around Mother Teresa and her hopes for the order.  Then, with the help of Andre, the talk turned into preaching.  They began to emphatically tell me that God had called me to this mission.  There was no doubt.  I asked for the signed letter, but the remark was lost on them.  Oh well.  It was about that time that I decided we needed to be getting back to the house.
I am struck, not only here, but throughout the trip, by the dress of the people.  Those not in their long coats and such are all wearing vests and ties.  Everyone from the street sweepers to the merchants, to the panhandlers on the street all seem to be wearing a tie.

When we got back, I was working under the assumption that we were supposed to be heading to the embassy for visas to Turkmenistan.  I quickly got into my suit and headed to the dining room, where the Nuncio informed me that it was necessary for me to go, that they discussed that at dinner last night.  Well, they forgot that they had discussed it in Russian.  The Nuncio and Christopher were going to go and get it done for us.  They would be back in half an hour I was told, and so I had a chance to walk a bit. 

When I got back, the others had also returned and so we went to the city center.  We walked through the downtown parks, and a pedestrian mall lined with people hawking their wares.  I thought that this would be my opportunity to pick up a souvenir or two.  The things they offered, however, were not all that exciting.  It was a lovely area though.  The street was lined with various vendors, kiosks, shops, etc.  There were some artists, a small amusement park (only half the rides seemed to be operating), and lots of items for sale - like plumbing parts, "antiques" (mainly old Russian items), ice cream vendors, food sellers, glasses, nuts, etc.  It was filled with people and children.  The mall ended at a cul-de-sac, at the center of which was a statue of the founder of Uzbekistan - Tamerlane ("the Lame") also known as Timur.  He was raised in Samarkand during the time that the Mongol Empire was eroding.  He is given the credit for the re-assertion of the Turkic people in Central Asia.  Assembling an army, he went on a 9 year rampage that ended in 1395 with modern day Iran, Iraq, Syria, eastern Turkey and Caucasus at his feet. 

All over his realm, Tamerlane plundered riches and captured artisans and held them in his capital city of Samarkand - which became a centerpiece in all the area for painting, treasures, literature, etc.  Tamerlane claimed to be kin to Genghis Khan and was equally as bloodthirsty, but history remembers him as a great ruler, cultured and deeply religious.

After our tour we headed back to the house of the family where we had eaten the day before, had a large meal of things that I did not want to eat.  Lots of pickled vegetables and raw onions, herring dishes, and other fish.  I choked down a bit of it, chased it with wine and declared myself satisfied.  Thank God for bread and wine.  Me and the Nuncio killed 2 more bottles.

 By this time in the trip, I am noticing that my English is going to hell (not that it is all that good in the first place).  Speaking with these non-native speakers, I find myself simplifying phrases, misplacing verbs and adjectives, and generally speaking like an idiot.  It sounds bad to me, but I can't stop it either.

After lunch we head back to town and a rather large mosque and Muslim cultural center.  It includes a school, meeting rooms, study center and small museum.  The museum is simply a collection of the Koran from various times in history and in various translations.  It is really kind of interesting, and what little was explained of each one was only enough to whet my appetite for more information.

  I learned that the leader of this mosque claims to be the Grand Mufti, but is in fact only a Big Mufti.  These are apparently real designations of honor and prestige.  The Nuncio, who knows the actual Grand Mufti, says that this guy is more a minor pain in the butt for the authentic Grand Mufti.  The Grand lets him get away with it as long as he doesn't represent himself in official matters under that title.  Sort of like a priest claiming to be a bishop, I guess.

From there, we head off to the big market of the city.  It is a huge place, and it takes us a little while to find a parking place.  Pawel is a little hesitant about leaving the car, but the Nuncio convinces him it will be all right, and we head to the market.  It is a huge open market, with a domed cover.  Much like a parking garage, we are able to walk along a wide, winding ramp to several levels of the place.  There were small booths and tables set up throughout, aisle after aisle of ground spices, fresh fruit, bulk goods, breads, vegetables, shirts, etc.  On the outer edges, not under the cover of the roof, truck after truck was lined up, people selling their goods out of the back of them.  The smells were sometimes odd and powerful, there were vegetables and fruits that I had never seen before and could not identify.  There must have been thousands of people shopping there, hundreds and hundreds of booths.  The meat was sold out of the trucks and the butcher blocks that they had set up in front of them.  All sorts of meats available.  What really fascinated me were the cow, horse and donkey heads line up on various tables.  Some were skinned and split open to give easier access to the meat, brains, eyes, etc.  These people waste nothing of the animal.  Huge horse carcasses were hung up, being carved away to order.  I took a picture of some of the heads, and it seemed to upset the butcher, so I kept walking.

Christopher got his shopping done, the rest of us had an eyeful (and nose-full) and so we headed on home.

When we got to the car, there was a group of young men cleaning the hides of a couple of goats right behind our car.  It took us a bit to convince them to move so that we could get the car out.  They were trying to convince us to buy the hides first.  We didn't.

 By the time we returned, it was early evening, just turning dark.  I now had my passport back, and a pocket full of the local currency, so I decided that I needed to go take a walk again.  Back in the direction I had gone the first night.  I was hoping to run into the same cop.  I left all my American money at the house and headed out.  I never did find my friendly cop, so I headed back in the direction that I had taken that morning.  Walked around there a bit more and headed home (still never found a diet coke).  It's odd, but the word for policeman means "good friend."

 Our original plans were to stay in Uzbekistan one more full day, but the nuncio is a bit concerned about the amount of driving we still had to do, so we decided to leave a day earlier.  He is particularly concerned about any night driving, so wants to make an early start of it.  We are on the road by 5:30 the next morning - I guess that was why the Nuncio decided to do without a night cap.


By 10:30 that morning, Andre has taken over the wheel of the car.  Pawel was getting tired (of course, he started out that way) and he joins me in the back seat.  Pawel, despite his uncertainty about Andre's driving does manage to close his eyes now and then.  But, they click open each time Andre uses the turning signals - which turns out to be anytime he is passing a car, goat or horse cart.  It is really kind of funny in a way - given the fact that the concept of "lanes", safe-driving distances and other road safety has not yet made their way to Central Asia.  I think even the other drivers are amused by it all and slow down to see what these lights flashing could mean. 

  As we go on, the quilted coats of the locals are getting more common, even as the temperature continues to rise - and the colors are getting more and more garish.  The fur hats are being slowly replaced by the sort of squarish, larger versions of the skull caps - often with embroidered designs in them.  It was a hat style that I did not notice in Kazakstan.

 As we pass through the villages, there were less kiosks and more piles of things on blankets on the ground.  In one particular village, they hung huge fish (carp I think) some of them gutted , and other animals from the trees along the road... all of them for sale.. All of them, I'm sure , covered with a road grime that must have added something to the flavor of the meat.

The Nuncio got hungry, and so we pulled over to an Asian version of a truck stop- restaurant.  I think we were the only guests there, and the two men working the place even came out to the parking lot to greet us and show us a better place to park.  I let the Nuncio order for me - he settled on a soup of some sort and lamb kabobs.  The glasses had a certain cloudiness to them, and the nuncio sent Pawel out to the car to get a roll of paper towels so we could clean them up.  The spoons were not too bad if you had a mouth that could accommodate a shovel and did not mind the permanently stuck crumbs of prior patrons.  Pawel is absolutely dying of laughter - he can't believe that the nuncio is eating in a place like this.  They set us in a private dining room, at a table that probably had 4 legs of the same length in a prior life, but were now all of different lengths.  The soup was greasy and the bone that flavored it had some remnants of meat on it... I was half tempted to take the bone with me to prevent them from re-using it, again, but then I thought, why deprive them of a livelihood.  Thank God they served us plenty of bread, which although stale, helped to kill the taste of it all.  The Nuncio and I ordered a small bottle of brandy to help kill the taste, cut the grease and kill whatever we might catch from the food and utensils.  For the first time since meeting him, Andre passed up eating went to take pictures of the hi-way instead.

  After eating I asked where the bathroom was.  Both Pawel and the Nuncio joined together in telling me that I did not want to go there, and that it would be better to go outside, someplace near a tree.  They were so adamant, I decided that I could wait.

 We eventually make our way to the border of Turkmenistan, where our passports are checked no less than three times, and Pawel is asked out of the car to talk with some officials for over half an hour.  Never did learn what the trouble was, just that Pawel was not happy about it all.  Of course, he seemed to have no great love of anyone in uniform. 

There are the ususal bunch of people on the other side of the border, waving fat bundles of money at us, hoping to cash in some of our American dollars.  I noticed that the people did not seem to know what I meant with the term "America" when telling them where I was from... but they did know "USA". 

We were definitely in the desert now.  There were sand dunes on either side of us, there were many adobe- type buildings in the little villages, and the coloring of the residents was a bit darker.  As we drove further and further through the country, the sand dunes gave way to a desert much like the south Texas, with the small low-lying plants and cactus as well as the mesquite-like trees.  We were headed toward that part of the country with water and irrigation, so the desert was slowing give way to fields of cotton, wheat and other plants.  We were stopped several times in different villages by the officers who sit around the entrances, but it was sort of funny, because it was apparent that they could not read the alphabet of our passports, and so tried to be more officious and hold us even longer.

There are now packs of wild camels to contend with as they cross the road and wander along the sides of the road.  It seems that after years of raising camels, some get away and kind of become feral.  It is rather interesting.  We see less sheep herds and more domestic herds of camels as well.  Several times we must wait as a shepherd gets his pack of camels across the road.

 Another interesting note.  I have noticed it all along as we have been driving, but see more of it as we get further into Turkmenistan.  There are hundreds of trucks from Iraq on the hi-way-  despite the embargo that we hear so much about in the states. 

After 2 hours or so, and before reaching the Turkmen border, Pawel had taken back the wheel and took over the driving.  He drove most of the rest of the day and into the early night.  We were delayed a good hour or more in the city of Mary.  It was really confusing.  There were no signs to lead us to Ashkabat, and the ones we did find, pointed us in the wrong direction. I don't know if this was on purpose or just some sort of prank, but the signs did not seem tampered with, just pointing wrong.  We spent a lot of time pulling over to the side of the road, asking people in which direction we should travel, etc.  It amazed me how many people were hitch-hiking.  In the cities, outside the cities, out in the deserted hinterlands.  It was quite common to see as many as 20 people or so in one place with their thumbs out, looking for a ride.  Pawel informed us that this was a common way of people getting to and from work each day.  Sometimes when we would pull over, the person or persons we were asking directions from were more interested in checking out how much room we might have than in giving us directions. 

Though usually quite accommodating, the people were not always accurate in giving directions, and Pawel made it a practice of not going too far in any one direction without asking at least two more times.  It was a good practice, many times we were pointed in the wrong direction, even by officers.  Eventually, we were clearly on the road to Ashkabat, and as the day gave way to night, Pawel decided it was my turn to drive.

It was a frightening experience.  The absolute dark of the night, and the dark pavement seemed to just suck in the glow of the headlights, even at bright.  The dark also seemed to amplify the lights of on-coming cars - which were often driving with brights anyway since their dims had apparently burned out.  It was difficult to relax while driving, the road would blend in with the dark landscape, and turns and curves were not always see-able until you got right on top of them.  All this was bad enough, but then there were many cars without any lights at all, and I would not see them until I almost had my fender in their trunk, the unlighted goat/horse carts, horses, etc. did not help matters either.  Occasionally a camel would be lying in the road.  Since the desert cools down so much at night, they come and sleep on the pavement which has retained the heat of the day.  There was one point where I swerved around a car that had only one, dim tail-light, and as I was pulling back into my lane, I had to jerk out again before hitting a donkey cart and continued the swerve to miss the camel ahead of him.  When the road passed through villages, we had the added danger of  pedestrians walking on the road... I swear they changed to dark clothing just to make the drivers crazy.  Certainly made a person alert.  When it started to rain, the whole thing was made absolutely torturous, and much harder to see what was on the road.  It was the hardest couple of hours of driving that I ever did.  When Pawel took over again, I could have kissed him, and actually managed to fall asleep in the car for the last hour or so of our trip (I was just mentally exhausted).

We got into Ashkabat ("City of Love"), the capital of Turkmenistan late that night.  And took the first decent hotel we found.... turned out to be too decent - 200.00 per night per room.  Well, the Nuncio was too tired to haggle.  We paid the money and went to bed.  I made a quick stop at the hotel bar first and had a bourbon and soda.  ($17.00!!!).

 I am told that Ashkabat is not the end of the world, but its easy to feel that it is only a short bus ride away.  It lies on the edge of the Karakum desert, and has a dustblown, shutter-banging in the wind quality to it.  Nobody seems very excited about it.  Turkmen traditionally don't care for cities, and the Russians are slowly leaving the place.

  The first recorded comment about the city is that they made good wine there (which is no longer true), written on a Parthian era tablet.  It has been leveled and rebuilt a number of times - usually it was earthquakes that destroyed it, but occasionally there were angry armies.  When the Russians arrived in 1881 it was only a small village.  The Russians decided to make it a regional center and by the end of the 19th century it held many European shops and hotels, an architecturally impressive train station and a bicycle club.  The city was even on the itinerary of a Thomas Cook tour.  The population was largely Russian, with some Armenians, Persians and Jews (even today, Ashkabat is largely non-Turkmen).

 On October 6, 1948, the city that 19th century visitors had described as beautiful and wonderful vanished in less than a minute, leveled by an earthquake that was over 9 on the scale.  Two-thirds of the population were killed.  For 5 years the area was closed to outsiders while the bodies were recovered (Stalin denying the severity of the damage and deaths).  So, today's Ashkabat is completely relatively modern, and hopefully more earthquake proof.

The next morning we broke fast with a huge breakfast bar - lots of fruits, sweet rolls, meats and cheeses, yogurts and potatoes.  It was great.  We went for a walk in town.  There was not all that much going on, it was Sunday morning after all, but it was pleasant to walk..  We found our way to a small street market.  There was not much at this one at all, some stands of fruits and vegetables and stuff not worth looking at. 

  The picture of the president seemed to be everywhere since arriving in the country.  Its' presence was more pronounced in the city.  Huge pictures on the sides of buildings, in the vestibules of all the hotels, above store counters, on signs, etc.  Busts and statues of him were also common.  In many cases, his picture was simply replacing the ones of Lenin or other Communist leaders.  And not just his picture, but his slogan as well "Country, Family, National Leader" (Halk - Watan - Turkmenbasy).

 He has been head of state since 1992 and is chairman of the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan.  He is apparently on record as saying he is against "formal democracy, because it would be a burden to the people."  The leaders of the main opposition group sits in exile in Moscow.  According to the constitution of 1992, the president is elected every five years, but in 1994 parliamentary deputies voted to extend the current president's (his name is Saparmurad Niyazov) reign until 2002. 

During our walk, we decided that we needed to find a different, less expensive hotel for the remainder of our time here.  We went back, checked out, and drove around.  It did not take us too long to find another.  At the edge of the city, on this side of the mountains separating Turkmenistan from Iran, was a whole street of at least thirty hotels.  All of them owned by foreigners - this was indicated because they flew their home country's flag as well as the Turkmen flag.

We stopped in several, asking to see rooms and asking rates.  We settled on an Italian owned place, and the owner was delighted to have us.  None of the hotels seemed to be doing much business, and I was puzzled at how they managed to stay open.  Luigi (the hotel owner) explained to us that not much business was done during the Christmas vacation period that lasted until the 12th of January.  He also told us that we were only about 7 kilometers from the Iranian border, but it couldn't be too bad as the newly built home of the American ambassador was just across the highway.  I didn't particularly care for the site, since it was so far away from any of the residential areas, and I would not have a chance to walk through the neighborhoods and see what was what.  But then again, I was not paying for the accommodations either.

After settling in, we went back to the town.  We were searching for the site of a Catholic church which was once there.  We asked around and one older man seemed to have clear memories of it in his younger years.  He thought it was partially destroyed in an earthquake in 1958 and was finally torn down in the early 60's.  The site having been turned into a park and a monument to one of the national heros was erected there.  We believe we found the site, but there was no indication whatsoever that there had once been a church there.

 We returned to our hotel.  The plan was to take some time to rest up, go back to town and then have dinner.  We had a meeting the next day with some government officials and the Nuncio sent a panic through me, telling us that he would need to a commitment, that night, about whether or not we were going to be coming to Turkmenistan.  He did not want to present us to these officials as his attache's , tell them to expect us in the next few months and then have us not show up.  Well, I certainly was not prepared for that.  My understanding of the trip was a look and see operation.  I was not ready to commit.  I liked what I saw, I thought that there was some potential for us there, I liked the exciting possibilities, etc., but I was not ready to decide at that point.  Heck, we had barely seen the area, I had not walked where the people were living, I had not seen all that much of the place, I certainly did not want to make a decision based on so little input.  Well, the nuncio and others went for their nap.  I went for a walk to talk all this over with myself.

During my walk up and down this street of hotels, I was going through a whole frenzy of different feelings, thoughts and emotions.  I did not want to be pressured into this.  I also did not want to be responsible for the mission not being a "go", if on the basis of the decision, nothing more would be done about it.  There were many reasons to say yes, there were many reasons to say no.  I kept thinking about Andre, and the two (eventually three ) of us sharing community life.  I had found over the course of our time together that he understood a lot of English, that we could carry on conversations about many things, as long as we did not dig too deep, but there was a sense of a strong unconnectedness when we talked about "deeper" or more emotional issues, when we talked about opinions and rationale for things.  Conversations that required not only a large vocabulary but an idea of the meaning behind words... it was those sort of encounters that we lost each other in.  I thought of the frustrations of working in a country where I would have to learn a new language, a new alphabet, where there was no large (or any) congregation to be with and draw upon, and how frustrating all that could be.  To then have to go home and find similar frustrations at home, would that be workable... I didn't think so.  I did not want to make a firm decision against taking on the mission at that moment, or that day, but it seemed that the community life issues were going to play a big part in this.  And since no other Americans showed interest in the endeavor, I felt I could not live with the situation as it was.  That is what has me back in the states and NOT packing, but at that time, I decided that the only honest decision was to say... I am not sure yet, and let the chips fall where they may... even if it disturbs the Nuncio and his plans.

When I got back to the hotel, Andre was on the phone, trying to call a number that someone in Poland had given him.  It was the number of a Pole working in Ashkabat.  Andre did manage to get hold of them, and made arrangements to meet him that afternoon, Andre found out he worked for the Polish embassy.  Later, we discovered he was the vice-counsel to the country.

We loaded up in the car and went to the address that Andre was given.  The Nuncio and I were not real excited about all this.  We did not know what we were walking into, and he expressed my sentiments exactly as we got out of the car and were heading to the building "I don't want to spend all night talking to some old man who will regale us with stories of what is no longer the case."  It turned out to be a very pleasant visit.

The man lived in a typical concrete apartment house.  He had a large apartment, filled with all sorts of furniture and nick-knacks.  We were welcomed in, and immediately shown to the dining room where his wife and another couple were already seated.  The dining room was quite long and narrow, the table seemed too big for the room, mainly because it was set between china cabinets against the wall on one side, and a couch on the other.  For us to get to our chairs, it was necessary to scoot ourselves sideways between the obstacles, and wiggle our way into the chairs.  The two teens who were present were much more practical.  They simply walked on the couch to their chairs.  The table was heavy laden with all sorts of food - most of them Polish dishes, a few Turkmen offerings as well.  The table looked set for an army, and as the mreal progressed more and more food seemed to appear, like magic.  It just kept coming and coming.

I had to keep observant, anytime I turned my head to talk to the person next to me, or to look out the window, another lump of food would be dropped on my plate.  They just did not catch on to the notion of "enough".  Of course, no Polish meal would be complete without a thousand toasts, and a shot of vodka to go with.  Everyone had to make a speech, and with every speech another shot was hoisted and swallowed, and when everyone had said their piece, we started again.  Even though I understood none of what we were drinking to, it seemed only polite to raise and drain my glass.

The meal lasted about 4 hours.  The last hour or so was spent with our hosts, Andre and the Nuncio discussing the history of the Catholic church in Ashkabat prior to communism, how many Catholics might be in the area (most of them foreigners) and what the counsel had been doing in trying to gather them together.  I got the idea that since coming to Ashkabat, he has been trying to form a Catholic community.  The problem seems to be that those who have Catholic roots and are not foreigners are very hesitant to even give their names and addresses, etc.  It is fallout from the past regime, when association with these kinds of groups was illegal and could get them into some very serious problems, and that mind set and fear is not going to be wiped away any time soon.

While all this was going on, I was getting bored, at some point they had stopped translating.  The other gentleman noticed it and the cigarettes in my pocket and motioned me to join him on the balcony.  We went out and smoked and he used his few words of English on me, and we were both getting completely confused.  He invited the children to come out and translate for us.  They take English in school, but they were both very shy about it - and so were not much help.  Eventually the meal was done, all the stories exchanged, and we were on our way. 

  Back at the hotel, the Nuncio comes to our room to find out where we were at.  Andre is able to commit right away, and I am not.  I tell him that I don't feel that I can make such a commitment at that moment, and that I have to have the time to continue to see the people and the situation and then process it a bit before I can say yes or no.  The nuncio was not real happy with me about it, but it was the only thing I could honestly do at that time and in that situation.  We concluded the evening in the hotel bar, with some rather bad local beer and called it a night.

 We spent the larger part of the next day waiting around the hotel.  The nuncio had not made any appointments for us prior to our coming, and so he and Pawel spend the morning on the phone, trying to get through to the various government offices.  They seem to not be able to do anything over the phone, so Pawel puts on a suit and goes down in person as the Nuncio's secretary of some sort. 

While Pawel is gone, the three of us spend the time walking up and down the street.  It is a clear, bright and very warm desert day.  The sun beating down on us, and it is feeling great.  The horizon is so clear and crisp, we can see into Iran - not that there is much there... more desert and a few more mountains.  We must have put in about 30 miles up and down that street.  We really had no option but to wait for news from Pawel.

He returns in the early afternoon to tell us we have a 3:30 appointment.  We quickly get dressed in our black suits.  Pawel dusts the car off, attaches the diplomatic flag to the side of the car.  The Nuncio, who has been, throughout the trip, occupying the front passenger seat, now tells me to sit up there, and he takes a back seat.  As we drive along, he gives me instructions about opening and closing his door for him when we arrive, about my place in line when we enter and sit, and the same for Andre.  All the protocol specifics.

We get to the governmental offices.  We arrived a few minutes early, and so the Nuncio had us drive around the block a bit... we could not show up early, we had to be right on time.  The Nuncio explained that this was all part of the game.  We were not met at the door, and this was part of the game too... a sort of snub, I would discover later.  The nuncio was very aware of all this and explains it to us later.  We entered the offices and told to take a seat in a very public reception area (another snub), the Vice President and the Chief of Protocol eventually came to meet us (making us wait...snub).  They did not move us to a more private meeting area (snub) but gathered in this public area... they did eventually dismiss the lady answering the phone and locked the door.

Pleasantries were exchanged, the Nuncio introduced Andre as his cultural attache'.  They accepted his papers with some reluctance.  It seems that the Nuncio is not accredited here in Turkmenistan, and though they have had his papers for several months, they are probably not going to accredit him there.  There are hard feelings between Turkmenistan and Kazakstan.  The Nuncio is based out of Kazakstan.  They would prefer a diplomat out of Russia or Turkey.... or one solely dedicated to them of course.  That was the reason for all the snubs.  There were some polite exchanges about the situation - both of them making some rather cutting remarks, but in very polite and diplomatic terms.  I was sort of fascinated about it all, and appreciated the fact that all this was going on in English.  It was interesting to see these things in action.  They were insisting on the particulars of any diplomatic ties that were going to occur and the nuncio was insisting that they could not call the shots in that matter.... all done very politely, no one taking visible offence, but both parties being very clear.  Of course, the Turkmen knew that the ball was in their court, that they had the upper hand, and so the best the Nuncio could do was remind them how necessary it was for cooperative efforts.  It was an interesting meeting, and it was a game of chess that I was pleased to have witnessed.  Several days later the Nuncio indicated that he would in fact be recommending to the Vatican that the Russian Nuncio take over Turkmenistan.

After the meeting we get back into civvies and headed out for a little more sight seeing.  We were going to take a 90 km. trip to some underground lake that he and Pawel had been talking about.  On the way there, we stopped at a rather small village about 30km outside of Ashkabat.  Though the village was a very small, rural place, it was the home of the largest mosque in all of Turkmenistan.  It was a fairly new construction, built on the site of the Turkmen's last stand against the Russians.  During the Soviet era, this was the site of an earthen fortress where 15,000 Turkmen died.  It was later made part of a collective farm.  There are still tell tale ridges and burrows from the fortress and the farm.  The mosque and complex is a memorial to those who died there, and seems to be a way of resurrecting some Turkmen history.

It was a huge mosque.  We arrived as the sun was setting, and the blue of the dome was made mystical in contrast to the reds of the sky moving towards night.  We took a number of pictures and then went inside.  As is typical, it was a large room without furniture, other than the stand from which the Koran is read and the preacher preaches.  There was a huge pile of carpets to one side, to be used at prayer time.  We were the only ones in there, and so we took some pictures.  But, someone from out in the courtyard must have noticed the flashes, and came running inside to throw us out.  They don't like pictures taken inside the mosques.  The man was carrying on with a rather long diatribe, but the nuncio, speaking in soft and apologetic tones eventually quieted him down.  We left, not seeing much more of the place, and just before their evening prayer was to begin.

As we continued our drive toward the lake, the night was fast approaching, and there were many herds of camels along the side of the road.   We were heading to the lower slopes of the KOPET DAG mountains.  We finally arrived at the "lake"- located about 60 meters underground and called KOV-ATA ("Father of Lakes").  It was actually a large picnic/camping area... reminiscent of many of our lake-side camping areas in the states.  There were no other tourists there, and the care-taker came out of his cabin to see what was going on.  We told him we were interested in the lake and such, he explained that it was closed at this time.  He did take us to the entrance of the cave, which was barred with an iron gate, and we were able to gaze onto the steps cut into the cave that descended down 250 meters into the lake.  The cave is not lit, so we were not able to see down into the water itself, our vision being blocked by a curve in the cave.  Pawel tried to talk the care-taker into letting us go down with the pen-light he had brought from the car, but the care-taker did not think it was such a good idea.  The one thing that we did not need a light for was the smell.  It is actually a large sulphur lake/spring, and the smell of hard-boiled eggs permeated the air around the entrance, and was quite strong as we looked into the opening.  We headed back, had supper, a night cap and then bed.

The next day we had two more meetings... one with the Foreign Minister, who is also president of the local university- which is where we had the meeting, and a visit with the Minister of Religion.  They were both pretty interesting, though, unlike the vice president of the day before, they did not speak English.

The Foreign minister was very interested in the possibility of our coming to Turkmenistan.  He was especially interested if I would be willing to teach English at the university.  This was the plan.  It is the way most of the priests have gotten their "in" in most of these countries - teaching religion, languages, (and in one case, journalism) in the local colleges.  It gets us exposed to the people who have the luxury to ask questions about faith and religion and the like.  The majority of the people are simply trying to eke out a living, and for them, the question of faith and religion takes a long back seat to putting a little bread on the table.  But those who are in school, who have some money, who don't have those worries, are able to ask the questions.  And what a wonderful way to start connecting, witness and evangelize.  In most of these cases, the priests teach in clerical garb.  This, of course, allows for questions about the outfit, and why the person is there, etc.  It is how most of the converts from these countries have come about.  Including Pawel, who is only 2 years a baptized Christian.... having met a priest at a college course.

 The Catholic Church has really been slow in most of Central Asia.  Most of the missionaries did not come until 5 or so years after each respective country declared and gained its independence.  It seems that the Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians were much quicker about carrying their message to these places - coming almost as soon as the opportunity presented itself.  Although they are not gaining people any faster than anyone else, they are more established.  This is true, as well, of the Russian Orthodox and the Muslims.  And the sad part is that there was once a very strong Roman Catholic presence all through these countries at one time.  The evangelical tactics have been especially successful, in that they will ordain somebody an official minister after only 6 months of training and bible study.  These ministers are then in charge of gathering and recruiting their own congregation - great incentive for spreading the word.  Turkmenistan remains, for the most part, a large exception.  The evangelicals have not made much headway there at all, nor have the other faiths.  There are more restrictions on them in this country, and access to the people is more governmentally regulated.  It is for this reason that we would be coming, not only as teachers, but also as diplomatic representatives... gives us a bit more free movement within the country.  Right now it is free, anyway, but the nuncio insists that that situation will change in a few years, and that the open arms being extended at this point will begin to close, until the question that they will ask is "Where were you when we were starting out, why are you here now that we have done all the hard work?", and so he thinks we need to move in quickly, build a church, and establish relationships.

The Muslims are taking this tact.  They are building and donating to the college in Ashkabat, a rather large complex that they are calling a Muslim Cultural Center.  It is something that comes across as educational gift and serves as a center for evangelization on their part.

 Our second and last meeting was with the Minister of Religion.  A big bear of a man, whose office building is in a rather small, wooden building.  Cramped and not all that well kept up.  The minister is a Russian Orthodox priest.  He is very cordial and is rather glad that we are thinking of coming, but wonders why.  He makes no bones about the fact that he and his family are now trying to get reassigned.  They don't like it here, and find it rather de-spiriting, with very few responding to their invitation to the Russian Orthodox church.   The wages are also very poor... but since he works for the government, he makes $20.00 per month, rather than the average wage of $10.00 per month.   There seems to exist a very good relationship between the Russian Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches in Central Asia.  That is nice to see.

 After returning to the hotel, during lunch, the nuncio informs us that he does not want to make the same kind of all day, all night trip that we took in getting to Ashkabat, and that we will be leaving the next morning, and make it a 2 day return trip.  I am rather disappointed.  I did not feel that I had yet seen the people of this country, though he assures me that it is not that much different from the folks in Kazakstan and Uzbekistan.  I am sure that he is not too mistaken, but the desert environment, the rather hard president, etc., must make a difference in the attitudes and lives of the people, and I would have liked to have walked among them.  Oh well.

We eat, and then head back into town to do some more sight seeing, and the nuncio wants to buy a carpet.

 We walk through a rather nice park area, in the center is a monument to the Forgotten Soldiers - a rather strong image of a pained "Mother Russia" weeping over her dead soldier sons.  It was really quite powerful, near it is an eternal flame surrounded by four massive, flat columns reaching into the sky and forming a sort of open box around the flame area. These memorials were erected in 1946, after World War II.  These columns are the tallest things around.  I don't think we ever saw anything that you would call a sky-scraper in any of the cities that we traveled through.  The tallest building was a 10 story hotel.

The park was a large one, lying in the heart of downtown, very well tended and quite clean.  There must have been about 20 older women and men tending the plants, picking up trash, digging up flower beds, and sweeping the sidewalks.  The women were all dressed in the typical long, heavy looking skirts and all were wearing head scarves in all sorts of bright colors.  I watch several of them using fallen branches of the trees and tying them together to make the brooms that they were sweeping the park with.

Our next stop was a carpet store.  My understanding is that it is one of the very few stores dedicated solely to carpets of the area.  A person could buy carpets at a number of places, but not the variety or apparent quality that we could get them here.  The Nuncio was very interested in getting one of them for his office wall.  I decided that I had best purchase some as well.  They had some smaller carpets, more like mats, that I thought would make interesting souvenirs.  Since there was a definite dearth of other sorts of souvenirs around.  I bought three small ones celebrating Turkmenistan - they include the five stars that are found on the Turkmen flag (each star representing the five states of the country) and the Muslim Crescent moon - also found on the flag.  These symbols are surrounded by the abstract designs that the country is famous for in its carpets.

 As far back as Marco Polo, travelers have commented and collected the beautiful Central Asian carpets, known generically as "Bukhara Carpets" or Persian Carpets. They were valued for their quality, the richness of the natural plant dyes used (predominantly a deep, wine red) and the beautiful simplicity of their geometric designs - usually a single or double border enclosing a central panel (or field) filled with a simple repeated motif.

The carpets, despite the name, have traditionally been the work of the Turkmen people, scattered throughout northern Afghanistan and northern Iran, and concentrated in modern Turkmenistan.  From what they call the GUL (or motif) it is possible to identify exactly where a carpet was made, since each design is unique to a particular tribe.  The carpets are often woven by family groups of women who carry the complex patterns in their heads.  It is more common these days, since the coming of the Soviet era, to find machine made carpets.

After purchasing our carpets (since mine were going to the U.S., I had to get a special permit and lead tag to indicate that they were legally bought and could be taken out of the country.  They are very restrictive about their carpets), we then headed to another market area. 

The plan was to drop the Nuncio and me off there, and Pawel was going to take Andre back to the home of the counsel.  There were some documents that the Counsel wanted to give him.  We were to meet in an hour, and so the nuncio and I walked through the market.

This was different than the others, less a market and more a mall.  It was a large building, about 3 stories, but you could only get up one level to the next by taking the stairs outside the building.  Several stores were set up as department stores of sorts, but the amount of stuff was extremely limited, or very cheap looking.

As we were making our way through the first store, a small boy, who looked to be about 5 or 6, brown hair, dirty face, big brown eyes, thin and dressed in tattered clothing attached himself to me.  He grabbed my wrist and walked with me, poking at my upper arm and saying something in Russian or Turkmen, and although I did not know the words, I knew what he wanted.  We tried to ignore it, but the nuncio was soon unable to take it much longer and urged me to give him something.  I reached in my pocket, found a few 500 manat notes (about 10› each) and handed it to him.  He ran off, and within seconds we were surrounded by about 8 more little tykes.  The nuncio decided that we were not going to give anymore money away... wise man.

After our little tour, we headed back to the hotel for supper.  During the course of our meal, the manager invites us to go for a swim.  The hotel had an indoor pool that I did not know about.  The manager shows us where it is at, and joins us.  He is very excited about being able to speak in Italian to the Nuncio and Andre, and his English was not bad either.  There was a sauna as well, and we could not keep Andre out of it.  He had never been in a sauna before and spent the whole evening going back and forth between the pool and the sauna.  - thoroughly enjoying himself.  Later, I found out that before this trip he had never stayed in a hotel either.  He was quite amazed that I felt so comfortable and familiar with staying in hotels.  Everything about them was new to him, and I had to let him know that the towels were not to be taken home, and that he really should wait to take the toiletries when we are leaving, not when we just get there... that we might want to actually use them.  Several bottles of brandy later, and many laps in the pool, we called it a night... our last night in Ashkabat.

I go to bed with the thought that only I could come to a third world place for several weeks and gain weight.... what a pleasant thought to fall asleep on.

Return via Bukahara and Samarkand

We are on the road fairly early the next morning.  Pawel is quite determined to spend the last of his Turkmen money before leaving the country.  He stops at several stores as we travel along, but is unable to find anything worth spending it on.  To re-exchange the money would be a loss, and he is dead set against that happening.  After several of these stops, the Nuncio tells him to just keep going.  He is able to spend some of it later in the drive when he pulls over to buy some lunch - several melons from a roadside display of fruits and vegetables.  Just inside the border he stops again - at another roadside cafe.  We sat at a table that the waiters pulled out from the inside and set under the front porch.   The food was worse than at the first one, and I decided to pass on it this time.  I thought I would settle for a soda instead of food.  What they brought me was some sort of dark, oily looking fluid in a bottle that looked home-capped.  I took the smallest bit in my mouth and decided to water the desert with it instead.  The others all ordered some soup... and it was little more than some bones in hot water.  They threw a few of the bones at some of the dogs hanging around the place... their eating it (and our assuming that they were not cannibals) made the diners feel a little bit better about it... but nobody actually finished their meal.  I think we might have insulted the cook when Andre decided to walk all through the parking lot and feed the various dogs from his bowl.

 One mystery about the trip that day.  Several times we passed the dead bodies of camels along the road... all of them beheaded.... why?  I never found out.

We get to the border, and are held up for over an hour.  It seems that when the Nuncio got our visas, it was only for a single entrance, and this would be our second.  The nuncio and Pawel spent some time talking to the guards who had stopped us, and then they were taken to the office, there we were told we would have to wait for the supervisor (there was also some confusion about the passports themselves.. They had never seen a Vatican one before).  Pawel was really getting steamed about all this, and several times began some vehement arguing, but would remember himself and calm down rather quickly.  I don't know if his outbursts exacerbated the problem or not, but I think so.  Eventually the supervisor came, listened to the story, checked the diplomatic credentials, and told us we were all right.  We were then heading out, when we were again stopped at the gate.  We had to get our car registered.. That took some more time, and nearly sent Pawel over the edge, but we were finally allowed to pass on through.

We spent that night in the historical city of Bukhara, Uzbekistan.  It is an ancient city, but it was also very much a Muslim center, and so when the Russians took over, they let it go to pot.  They were not good about maintaining the historical buildings and other sites of Muslim interest.   They also avoided putting any new buildings there.  I guess that the idea was to let the town fall apart, allowing it to disappear through lack of attention.  That is too bad, it is really something worth seeing, and its preservation would have been worthwhile.  Now, they are re-building, preserving and building new things.
The hotel we stayed at was Iranian owned and seemed to cater mostly to Iranian people.  The dining hall was huge, but there were only ourselves and another table of about 8 businessmen in the place.  It seems we had come at the end of the night, and the band packed it up about half way through our meal.  It was just as well, the music was that sort of undecipherable Iranian music that reminded me of the sounds of Egypt. 

The menu was limited, as was the liquor and wine selection.  We had a large platter of cheese and various horse sausages, and some sort of chicken fried steak that was hard as brick.  Thank god for an abundance of bread.

There are many mosques in different states of repair or dis-repair throughout the city.  As in the old European cities, where a Christian church was built on almost every corner, there are mosques all over the place.  They range in age from the 4th through the 16th centuries.  We were heading toward the "old town" in the middle of the city.  It is an area that is made up of buildings spanning 1000 years of history, and still lived in.  It probably has not changed much in 200 years.

The old-town is dominated by a minaret.  It is called the KALAN MINARET and was built in 1127.  It is 47 meters tall with 10 meter deep foundations (including reeds stacked underneath in an early form of earthquake-proofing), which in 850 years has never needed anything more than cosmetic repairs.  It has 14 ornamental bands running around it, each one different, and includes the first use of the glazed blue tiles that now saturate Central Asia.  A legend says that a great Khan killed a holy man (imam) after a quarrel.  That night in a dream the imam told him "you have killed me; now oblige me by laying my head on a spot where nobody can tread", and so the kahn had this tower built over his grave.

  At the foot of the minaret is the KALAN MOSQUE, big enough for 10,000 people.  The Soviets used it as a warehouse and it was reopened as a place of worship in 1991.  The roof, which looks flat, is actually made up of 288 small domes.  Tourists are only allowed into the central courtyard.

On the other side of the courtyard, with a glittering blue dome that contrasts with all the surrounding brown, is the MIR-I-ARAB MEDRESSA (medressa = Moslem school or university).  It is a working seminary that dates from the 16th century until 1920, and reopened by Stalin in 1944 in an effort to win Muslim favor for the war effort.  It was Central Asia's only working medressa in Soviet times, there are others today.

The medressa is named for a 16th century sheikh from Yemen who had a strong influence on the ruler of the time and financed the original complex.  The sheikh is buried beneath one of the domes in the complex.  There is a tall pole near the dome, with a horse-hair tassel which is a traditional marker for the graves of very revered people in Islam.  There is also a metal hand on the pole.  The hand symbolizes the "five pillars of Islam".

This city center is an architectural preserve.  The country is pumping all sorts of money into restoration in order to have it ready to celebrate the town's 2500th birthday in 1997

We stopped at a citadel in the middle of the city.    It is called the Ark.  It was a royal town within a town and is the oldest structure in Bukhara, occupied from the 5th century until 1920, when it was bombed by the Red Army.  It is a huge, walled fortress of sorts.  Many of the walls have crumbled through the centuries and the bombings didn't help either.  Looking like a mountain land slide more than a falling building.  They are doing a lot of restoration work.   At the top of the entrance ramp is a Mosque from the 17th century, its porch supported by tall columns of sycamore.  It is called the JUMA (Friday) mosque.  There were other buildings, several small museums, books stores, government offices, and even some souvenir stores... the first I 've seen in Central Asia.  All these places were in rooms that were carved out of the very thick walls of the fortress.  I suppose that they were as old as the place itself - some of them were nothing more than small, narrow, depressions in the wall.  All of them had heavy wooden doors and massive locks. 

I bought some postcards, and then, at the insistence of some shop people, I was dressed in a helmet, long quilted coat and sword and had my picture taken in the outfit.  The little stores sold things like brass, tooled plates, little statuettes, scarves, picture books, and other nick-knacks... and knives and swords, lots of knives and swords.  I was not too impressed by the stuff.  The things that I thought would be worth having were too expensive or too large.  Andre was determined to find a cross or crucifix.  I thought he was out of his mind, but sure enough, he found one - a ghastly looking plaster crucifix, colored with cartoon-bright paint.  He got ripped off to the tune of $10.00 for something he could have found in any flea market anywhere in the world.  Oh well, he was a happy camper.

One of the small museums was filled with all sorts of armor, swords and other ancient war tools.  It was interesting, but I could not translate the information near each exhibit, so was never completely sure of the age and significance of any of the displays.

There was also a very small "nature" museum.  Some badly deteriorating stuffed animals, animals preserved in bottles filled with very old formaldehyde.  Many of these bottles were only half-filled with liquid.  I imagine it was from evaporation... and the parts of the animals not in the liquid were drying out and falling apart.  Some of the other bottles had become so discolored that you couldn't even see what they contained.  The centerpiece of the museum was a diorama of stuffed sheep.  It seemed sort of funny to me, when all you had to do was look down the road and see all sorts of sheep.

We didn't have enough time to see it all, but we got to see the major sites and then headed out.  The streets through the old town were quite narrow, deep trenches running right through the middle of it, a sewage system I think.  There was not enough room for two cars to pass, much less a car and a donkey (and we had to give way to several of these and their riders).  Eventually we made our way out, and continued through the desert.  This was the section that we passed through in the dark on the way to Turkmenistan, so it was interesting to see the many adobe houses, lots of them with thatched or corrugated steel roofs. 

I should say something about buying gas. It was an interesting method.  Although there were a recognizable gas stations in the major cities, most of the gas that was being purchased directly from the trucks.  People would pull up, ask what grade they were selling, and it would be either pumped directly from the trucks or put into cans and then put into the cars.  Pawel tells me that many people save for years, or get a village cooperative to buy a truck and gas, and then drive all over selling their wares.  The problem was that you could not always count on the cleanliness of the gas, and sometimes they lie about the grade.  Pawel was very particular about getting the right gas, and so would avoid these trucks when he could, but that was not

There were several times when we would pull over to actual pumps that seemed to be in the most obscure places, without much indication that it was available, but Pawel always seemed to be able to find them.  On several occasions, there was no electricity to get the pumps working, or because it did not exist in that particular village.  Then the pumps were hand cranked (usually by the proprietors' kids).  It was amusing to watch, and usually took 2 kids to fill our tank, the two kids relieving one another as they tired out.  Fun to watch, and usually the kids liked to have their pictures taken while doing it.

We were being a little leisurely today, and we made another stop in the town of SAMARKAND, Uzbekistan.  This city is probably the oldest and most famous of all the cities in Central Asia.  It has been written about for centuries, many poems mention it, many plays have used it as a setting.  It is a city populated by minarets and domes, lots of monuments to Tamerlane, who is responsible for most of the high-profile attractions there.  It is a city founded about 5 BC (and originally called Marakanda).  Known by the ancients as the "pearl of the Moslem world".  The great conqueror Tamerlane had made it the capital of his empire.

Almost everything of tourist interest is in the sun-dried old town, basically unchanged in its layout since the Middle Ages.  As we entered this city center, we were confronted with a whole  complex of ancient mosques, schools and other buildings that lie in the center of the city and are known as the REGISTAN ("sand place") - the ancient square of Samarkand.  It was the medieval commercial center and the plaza was (and mostly still is) wall-to-wall bazaar.

The ensemble of buildings include 3 MADRASSAHS (Moslem schools), observatories, and other religious and scientific buildings.   The entrance to one of these ancient schools is decorated with roaring tigers, which seemed rather odd and unique because of the Islamic prohibition against depicting live animals.  The Registan has many historic figures associated with it, including the astronomer and scholar MIRZA ULUGBEK and the mathematician GHIYASISSIN KASHI.  It is also the site of the tomb of Tamerlane.  It was there, in the small, low ceilinged, dimly lit shops, that I finally found some souvenirs that I was interested in - one of their traditional squared hats and some figurines of Moslems in turbans or their squared caps... they were rather comical looking, and seemed kind of cute souvenirs.  The shops were sometimes much larger than one would first suspect.  Walking in, having to bend down so as not to hit your head on the door, you would enter a first room, and then around a displayed carpet might be a hallway that leads to other rooms, all laid out with carpets, candles, brass items, carved items, books, etc.  All the visions of an Arabian treasure cave come to life.  Because of the dim lighting and the appearance of the shop-keepers, it was also tinged with a sense of danger and the unexpected. 

We spent some time in these buildings, looking at the lavish ceilings of the mosques and other buildings before we had to head out.   Apparently there is another Catholic Church in Samarkand, but we did not stop to see it, the nuncio anxious to get back before too late.

As we drew closer to Tashkent, there was a light snow on the ground, and the huge black mountains that looked so barren when we left a week ago were now snow capped, and everything looked so very different.  There were not as many street vendors out, nor as many people in the squares and along the roads.  The snow, as minimal as it was, really sent the people indoors.  It was really quite lovely.

We arrived in Tashkent about 7 that night.  Fr. Christopher was there, and so was the priest from Samarkand - Fr. Ivan.  He is a Franciscan who was originally from Michigan, and came to serve in the missions here as soon as they were opened.  I found out that he and Fr. Christopher were originally together, but were finding that they could not live together very well, so when the opportunity came to go to Samarkand, Ivan took it.  He started the church there by initially spending a year going up there twice a month for several days at a time.  Meeting people, and even talking a group of non-believers (Muslims among them) to get together to help build a church.  As soon as it was built, he moved in.  He teaches journalism and English at the university there.

They were expecting us, and there were kabobs on the grill.  The first batch were great - sheep.  But then they brought on the second batch - a collection of pieces of various sheep organs.  After nearly choking on the first taste, I decided that I was full.
I then went out for a short walk - with passport in pocket.  On this walk I went my original route, and who do I run into, but the cop who took my money several days prior.  Well, we looked at each other (I felt cocky since I had my passport in my pocket), I sort of grinned.  He was busy with someone else and so he simply gave me a glare, and I continued my walk at a jaunty pace, until I turned the corner and then began to move a bit more quickly.  I did not want to take too many chances.  I felt as though I had done what I needed to do, so I headed back home satisfied.

When I got home, I discovered that Andre had made arrangements to go and do mass with the sisters the next morning and had convinced Ivan to take him.  The guy was bound and determined to give them the sermon he had prepared.  I hope it went well, I certainly was not going to accompany them.

Final leg

When they got back from the Sister's house, we began our third day in the car.  My butt was really getting sore by this time.  Although the car is quite comfortable, there is only so much sitting that I can do.  This day was pretty uneventful.  We made no stops, and there was a prevailing sense by all of us, that we just wanted the driving to end.  We left the snow about an hour or so into Kazakstan, and that was mainly because we left the mountains as well.

The last 2 hours of the trip, in the semi-darkness of late evening, were spent in a terribly thick fog.  It not only slowed us down because of the visibility, but it also made the road slick, and Pawel was not able to do his usual bat-out-of-hell speeding.  Of course, not all the drivers on the road respected the slickness of the streets, and we passed several semi-trucks that had slid off the road or into other obstacles.

We did finally arrive back at the Franciscan compound in Almaty.  The Bishop and Pawel dropped us off in the care of the good sisters and got out of there, telling us that they would send Fr. Maximo to take us to the airport the next morning.

The nuns fed us, and then when I suggested that I would go out for a walk, they encouraged me not to.  There has been two murders in the small complex of buildings next to their compound since we were last here, and one of the priests had been accosted and hit pretty hard in the head.  The sisters than gave us some more hopeful news - the bishop had sat here three days longer than he had expected waiting for a plane to be able to land - the fog had been this heavy for about a week or so now.  The thought of sitting here three more days was not a pleasant one.  Though it was all very interesting and exciting, now that we had started the return trip... I wanted to complete it.

Maximo arrived the next morning, right on time, and had us at the airport by 6:30 in the morning.  Our flight was to depart at 8:30, but did not get out until about 10:30.  I had a chance to spend most of my Kazak money though - there was an international magazine kiosk, and I bought every Time and Newsweek that they had.

We arrived in Moscow, and again, it was bitter cold.  We caught the mud and ice encrusted bus to the main International Airport, and proceeded to wait.  We had about 8 hours to wait.  Andre and I talked about trying to get into Moscow proper, but it was, we were told, 80 kilometers from the airport.  We thought about the cost of a cab and the confusions of the bus, and decided to just sit there.  I whiled away the hours by reading and visiting the kiosks, etc.  I did manage to buy a Russian fur hat from the duty-free shop.  I was also fascinated to discover that most of these fur hats were made out of opossum.  I would never have guessed it, but mine is made out of beaver and lamb.  The airport was not as bad in the light of day as I had thought it was the first time we passed through.  There were actually some nice shops and restaurants in there.  I guess I was too tired or confused to notice all the amenities on our way through the first time.

We went through the usual mess with our passports and all, but it was something we had grown accustomed to, and even Andre had picked up on the idea of not stuffing his tickets, boarding passes, and other papers into his bag until we had fully passed through all the check points.

Our plane was a late evening one, and we arrived in Warsaw late that night (due to the time changes (there is a 15 hour difference between Turkmenistan and Alaska).  We were met by the director of the seminary house, caught the bus and made it back to the house.  It was still bitter cold.  When we arrived, Bro. Joe was waiting for us, all smiles and some hot tea all ready.  I went to bed after re-arranging my bags and packing everything away. 

The next morning, Sunday, I got up fairly early, got dressed and took a very early morning walk, found a diet coke, and headed back in time for mass at the house.  After mass, Andre accompanied me to the airport.  After having a tea together, we parted ways and I was left to continue my journey home.  The plane was only a couple of hours late, but I had enough reading material to keep me going.

In the Amsterdam airport, which is pretty well set up as a shopping mall and casino, I wandered through the shops, lost some money in the slot machines, and ate some snacks.  It was a pleasant way to kill 5 hours.  The flight from Amsterdam to Minnesota was a miserable 8 hour ordeal... I was in a center seat.  Thank God the movies were amusing.  Another delay in Minnesota got me into Seattle way too late to go downtown as I had planned, so I checked into a nearby hotel, got one drink at the closing bar in the hotel and slept.  The next morning, I caught my flight to Juneau, there were no delays, and I was home.  It was a trip.

My decision

Since my arrival, I have indicated to the Oblates that I would be willing to go if they could find another native English speaker to go as well.  There are no others that have expressed an interest in going... at least none that we feel would work out.  It is the community life that made the decision for me.  It would be a very exciting and interesting place to be.  The thought of "building" the church there is romantic and exciting.  It would be great place.

From the locals, I got a sense that although they are culturally Moslem, that they are not committed to any religion as of this time.  That, I would guess, comes from the fact that they have not been able to practice any faith openly in the last 60+ years.  But, there is a spiritual hunger that is real, almost palpable, and it is looking for a place to take root in.  I believe the Catholic Church needs to be one of the options that we make available - but it won't happen if there are no Catholics there.  It would be slow, despite the hunger, because the people are also very wary of institutions - having suffered under the institution of Communism so long.  They are also still very wary of signing on with those groups that have been so long banned, so long a dangerous thing to do... so it would be slow going.

The fact that we would enter the country as teachers would be a big plus.  Following the lead of other priest-teachers there, we would do so as priests, wearing our clerical garb, etc.  This entices the students to ask questions, and thus gives us an opening to evangelization.

I also think that the vast majority of the people are too busy to ask the religion question or pursue their spiritual hungers... they are looking to put bread on the table.  So, it is the students and those like them, who have the luxury to ask the "meaning" questions that we would have the best chance with.  The others we would have to be present to as a helpful, hopeful presence.  That too has its evangelical power, but is usually a bit more slow and subtle.

It is a great opportunity for bringing the Gospel to those who have not encountered it in quite a while.  The decision I have come to was not easy, but I also feel that to put myself in a situation where I would not find peace or depth at home would be disastrous for me.

Maybe some other time...........