By this stage in the journey as serial vagrants, we've developed a bit of a formula and an art for giving oneself the best chance of sleeping somewhere safe and made of something more sturdy than canvas. In a way it is reminiscent of a keen uni student before a night out hoping to end the evening in a loving and ecstatic embrace, but unaware of the direct path to this conclusion. There are certain graceful behaviours that can help improve the odds, but neither a host nor a lover for the night is ever certain.
Firstly, the setting. The evening meal has usually proved the most fertile context, and the type of restaurant is key. Anything too low-key or fast is often too transient: people are not always on their way home, or can be in a state where they might struggle to find their way home. A respectable family restaurant, busy and in the heart of town is usually the best bet. Outdoor seating is excellent as you can make a dramatic roll-in entrance, and half the conversation is already explained.
Choosing the table is the next stepping stone, it's good to be in the heart of the activity, so you get as many neighbours and potential conversation partners as possible. Here the hook-up parallels start to fire up further, dress is also important: a package wrapped in skimpy cycling lycra is unlikely to win many friends or families in these countries where homosexuals 'don't exist'. Demeanour and eye conact are the other components of a first impression, respectful but extroverted has been our mantra. On entry, a scatter-fire of eye-contact, nods, bows and 'salam allaih hukum's casts the widest possible net on the way to the sink to clean-up.
Likely there are at least a couple of tables stacked with as many vodka bottles as old and beaming uncle figures to drink them. While these groups are sure to keep the evening lively, shelter for the night is often the last thing on anyone's mind. A call out in well phrased english provides a ray of hope, as connection can come faster when not restricted to charades. Although the back of our shirt, with it's map, distance and charity, goes a fair way in getting everything across. It takes a lot of understanding and trust to invite two large, smelly and strange young men into your house and among your family, and this bridge needs to be erected over a mealtime or less. But don't play it too keen, this is a subtle art, and respect needs to be kept by all parties. Finally, never give up hope: a couple of times the restaurant owner has witnessed our plight into the late hours approaching closing time, and has then offered us a place next to the tables.
All this being said and done, the rest is chance. A home, or a lover, for the evening ultimately rests on divine providence mixed with the magnamity and warmth of an as-of-yet unknown soul.
This was all the case in coming to Khujand, and into the restaurant where we met Ali at a celebratory meal for his parents anniversary. It proved to be the happiest of accidents, and let to a treasured two day stay. We spoke to him immediately on entering the restaurant, drawn by his open eyes eyes and relatively exceptional english. When his family soon got up and left, we felt he was the perfect host that had got away, and were considering an expensive city hotel or a dodgy out-of-town camp. We later found out his mother had urged him to invite us: on his previous travels Ali himself had slept rough and there is little like a mother's empathy. Regardless the one that got away came back, and later that night we cycled up to his newly built family mansion-house. His father used to work for the Tajik FBI and then had a stint working with the Dictator's family. On meeting him on the doorstep, his matching pajamas rather belied this martial history.
I had a tremendous rest day swanning round the karakal lake learning about the not so progressive intricacies of Tajik marriage culture, whilst rob repeatedly emptied his guts back home. This missed day of food was to plague him and his strength over the following period. Sherali was another generous and intuitive host, and I hope an emergent friend who I hope to see in Amsterdam in the not too distant future.
In Tajikistan, a large amount of investigative work precedes a marriage. If a young man finds an unmarried women that he finds suitable, the onus falls on him to compile a full dossier on the family: the father's work and his work colleagues impressions of him, the groom-to-be will interview the neighbours for any observed deviations - whether they correctly sort their recycling etc. The bloodline and ancestry will also be examined, and most crucially the chastity of the potential bride will be thoroughly researched and estimated. This point was emphasised very, very thoroughly in my enlightening conversation with Sherali. The the groom's family will meet the bride's family and request the girl's father for her hand in marriage, at which point they will always and customarily be turned down.
To accept the proposal first time shows an uncouth over-eagerness, playing hard to get is a must for the girl's dignity. Declining also provides the time for the bride family to do some counter-investigation, involving the same mass interview tactics and complex sentiment analysis. A groom's family will often have to come back 3, 5 or 7+ times to bag the girl. A 'no' from a bride's father is therefore a a smudge of blurred lines, only a definitive 'do not come back to this house again' is ever forceful enough to truly see the back of the suitor.The girl's elder brother will also get at least as much a say in the decision as the girl herself.
In all the nature of proceedings is so very different to western cultural norms and acceptable practices that a comparison is not really required. I'll let the reader digest the facts and come to their own conclusions.