© Copyright 2008 by Vanessa Stoffel
It is human nature to look for cultural similarities when one travels; to realize we are all human and not so different. We can find comfort in recreating familiar social situations while abroad. We can also find danger when we don't consider the implications of our personal choices.
Having given up alcohol for Lent, Ginger and I had abstained from booze the entire 40 days —except when there was mandatory consumption of Vodka at special parties and poured by particularly pushy hosts. Now that the Lenten Season had come to an end, we decided to do the night up right. We left for Hotel Uzbekistan around 6:00pm. Stopping off at the post office I paid $15 to talk to my answering machine when I tried to call and chat with my roommates back in Iowa. At the hotel, we had a double shot of crown royal and a piece of cake. Then we chain smoked for a few laughs and had a Carlsburg beer. We decided that the stuffy, businessman atmosphere was too much. We had walked past a pub called the Lucky Strike on our way to the metro ever since we arrived at the Institute, so we thought we’d give it a try.
From street level, we walked down a short flight of steps to enter the Lucky Strike and then bellied straight up to the bar. We ordered two drafts of Carlsberg beer and lit our cigs —with the expedient help of bar tenders Sasha and Rustam, who quickly —though without request— held out flaming lighters.
Not long after our first sip, a middle-aged English speaking man was asking, “Are you Irish?” After hearing our reply in plain middle American English, he explained that he thought we looked foreign since we lit a cigarette immediately upon our arrival. His name was Todd. He was a businessman from New Jersey. He informed us that he had graduated from Rutgars, was in the FIJI Fraternity and partied a lot. He bought our next round. Todd’s friends from the US Embassy soon arrived. They were John and Jim. Another balding, middle-aged friend named Michael arrived and sat on the other side of Ginger. Michael —the cheeky monkey that he was— “invited” us back to the Hotel Uzbekistan for some drinks at a later date. Michael was living proof that no matter where in the world you go —there are always plenty of dirty old men!
Soon a student judge from the Ms. Institute contest arrived. The Ms. Institute contest was an event held for the international student body. A female student from each country was selected to compete in actvities such as peeling onions, cutting out paper dolls, as well as singing or dancing. A male student from each country was selected to participate in the child-dressing competition. Children were provided.
I was chosen to represent America. I brought my Leatherman tool to the onion contest and insisted on back-up singers for the vocal performance, which was a lip synch to the song “Lolly Pop.” Somehow, despite my lack of seriousness and mockery with regards to the pageant, and the stiff competition which consisted of young ladies from China, India, and Saudi Arabia in beautiful traditional dress (who took the competition very seriously) I still won.
The judge recognized us and bought us another round. We continued to enjoy the drink and the company of English speakers. As the night went on, the dirty old man left, the embassy dudes left, and the judge left. By this time we were totally sloshed, but Rustam and Sasha kept lighting our cigs and filling our glasses. We were having so much fun. It was as if we were at our favorite college watering hole, in good old Ames Iowa, just a short stumble from the drunk-bus stop, which would take us to our apartment. I had this “I love you man” feeling coming on and was ready to lock arms and sing American Pie should it come over the sound system.
Impulsively, I decided we should do a shot of Vodka. Ginger later said she thought we did it because something clever was said. I barely remember the shot let alone the occasion! The act of doing the shot did trigger a sense that our faculties were compromised and that it was incredibly late. We decided to go and said goodbye to Rustam and Sasha.
To reach our hostel from the front side of the institute we could walk along a well-lit street, but it was five blocks further than traveling to the back side. It was only 5 short blocks total to the rear of the institute —the side on which an Indian student had been mugged a couple of months before. Standing in the dark alley feeling uneasy about both options I started thinking about how I knew before we stopped at the Lucky Strike, that we would be out past 7:00 pm and that it would be a dangerous journey sober. Now here we were completely waxed. So without better judgment, we set out for the short cut to the dimly lit back side of the university.
We got to the end of the street and I glanced back over my shoulder, trying to make myself aware of my surroundings on which I could barely focus. There were silhouettes of five young men coming out of the metro and past the Lucky Strike towards us. They were about 100 yards back. I informed Ginger of our situation. We were not yet in trouble but we could hardly stand up. We clung to each other and tried to act sober. If we kept up a good walking pace, we would be able to stay far enough ahead of them and be fine until we reached our hostel.
We made a right, walked a block and then left and walked two more blocks. We were grateful to see that the back gate was open and we were not locked off the premises, but suddenly I noticed the sounds of running feet thundering towards us. The young men were getting louder and they were getting closer. Before long they were right behind us. It was clear that we were in a dangerous situation. We were now on the grounds of the institute. We had about one more block to walk before would arrive at our building and we were now surrounded by darkness and five jeering hoodlums.
I pulled my Leatherman tool from my pocket and flipped out the knife while holding onto Ginger and walking as quickly as possible. I told her that I had my knife out just as one of the guys started lunging at us. He grabbed her butt and then mine. We could no longer ignore him. “Fuck You,” yelled Ginger. He laughed and suddenly the rest of his gang was all around us. We were still able to keep walking as the main hooligan persisted in groping at us. He tried pulling Ginger from me, our arms still locked and my hand on my knife. “Go To Hell” I commanded.
He wrenched Ginger from me. “Ginger!” I called. I grabbed her back from him and we turned back towards the hostel. “Can you run, Ginger?” I asked her.
“I’m sure that I can run!’ she said. “
We must!” I told her, and we did. I started to yell for help in Russian, “Pomagite! Pomagite!” and then I called for Zohid, hoping that his name and status would discourage our harassers, “Zohid, Pomagite.” The yelling seemed to slow the thugs who had been following close behind. We made it to the front door of our hostel, but the gate was locked. We yelled for help as the five men walked calmly past, giving up the fight. Still I yelled, “Burn in Hell, you bastards!” Then I turned to see the elderly lady that slept and ate in the security room at the door (the“penalty” box lady) coming to let us in.
After Ginger and I were harassed by the hooligans the night of the Lucky Strike bar, I realized how fortunate I really had been, given my college partying ways. Iowa State University wasn’t free of crime, but at the time it was overwhelmingly attended by young people, like myself, that liked to have a good time and still make it to church or even an 8 am class.
One night, not long before I made the trip to “East Pakistan”, I went with four girl friends to a bar that was known for mixing stiff drinks. The bar was called the Lost and Found Lounge and was located above Cy’s Roost. On Wednesdays they had “two for the price of one” specials on Long Island Ice Tea. My girlfriends and I had a few before heading across the street to a dingy bar with a dance floor called Tazzles. At Tazzles, ladies drank for free on Wednesdays with a $5 cover charge. By 10:00 pm I was falling off my bar stool and had lost the ability to talk –and I knew it. I also knew that my booze-induced narcolepsy would soon kick in. My internal timer started to flash 30 minutes –the amount of time I had to find a safe place to crash before I would pass out.
My girlfriends were in about the same state, but not interested in leaving. I dug deep within and sensed that I had a Cy-ride bus pass in my back pocket with my ID and knew that a bus would soon stop up the street at the Kwick Trip gas station. Aware of my vulnerable state, I did my best to disguise my level of inebriation by concentrating on deliberate foot placement and balance. I managed to get myself up onto the street and down to the stop. Fifteen minutes later I got off the bus only three doors from my house and made it safely inside and passed out for the night.
The next morning, I hitched a ride to the commuter parking lot with Ginger, who had been at home studying the night before. The commuter lot was as close to campus as you could drive without a staff or faculty parking permit. There a free bus took you onto campus. The commuter busses ran every 10 minutes and were a back up for us as we missed our blue-line bus, which would have taken us from the end of our street to Kildee hall for our first class. There was standing room only on the bus and a guy that I recognized from the bar scene, but had never had a conversation with, leaned over to me asked incredulously, “How did you get home last night?”
I thought about the two nights and how both had started out as a fun time of swilling drinks in good company and both eventually ended up with me safely passed out in my bed. Either of them could have ended up more tragically.
If I were raped in Ames, Iowa, I could go to the police and a sexual assault response team would come and counsel me, tell me it wasn’t my fault, offer me a morning after pill and give the police details that might help them catch the culprit —or culprits. Here In the former Soviet Central Asia I think the response would be quite different.
First, I would be told that of course I deserved what happened to me, because only prostitutes get drunk in public and walk the streets without a man. There would be no counseling, no exam, probably no police report or manhunt. If I were murdered or abducted in Ames, Iowa there might be witnesses, an investigation and most of all people would miss me –know that I was gone. Here in Tashkent I could vanish without a trace at the merciless hands of anyone that wanted to be sadistically entertained, sexually fulfilled or just wanting to teach me a lesson about how a woman ought to behave in public.
At this realization I felt the desire to consume large quantities of alcohol waning. I promised myself that I would no longer compromise my body or life with alcohol. I didn’t care if I offended my hosts —I was done with the vodka shots. It was time for me to be in control of myself and my future.
Vanessa Stoffel is a wife to a devoted
husband and mother to a wonderfully rowdy gang of three kids. She
enjoys writing essays about her blue-collar childhood and bohemian
roots. She is also finishing a novel about her experiences and
relationships gained while living in Uzbekistan, Greece, and the
in the subject line of the message.)