We were crowded in the back of the bus from Tolkuchka, the largest open air market in central Asia and once shopping spot of Marco Polo. It had been an outing planned by our Turkmen tutors to get us out of the class room and into the real world to practice our Turkmen competence. It went swimmingly and I managed to buy a sweater for the up coming winter without forking over all my money. We were now headed back to the village where we were staying during our three month training, but it required a few transfers.
We were hot, tired, and probably a little hungry, so we rode in silence. Buses in Turkmenistan are generally void of conversation and the only noise usually comes from someone listening to music on their phone. I noticed a man staring at us from across the bus and elbowed my friend, Victor.
Staring was nothing new, though we received it a little less in the capital of Ashgabat. Almost no one talked on the bus and given our status as Americans, it could be risky talking to us anyways. However, this guy didn’t look Turkmen. He didn’t look Russian. He had a dark complexion, black hair and wore khaki pants and a shirt. The chances of a random diplomat being on a crowded bus was pretty slim. Not many foreigners visited Turkmenistan as it was a difficult place to travel to, and only being in Turkmenistan a couple of months, I hadn’t met any. Though, over the course of two years I would meet several travelers. Seeing someone so distinctly not Turkmen or Russian staring at us on a bus was a new experience. My paranoia started to take over. Why was this guy staring at us?
“Excuse me, are you Americans?” He had an accent, but otherwise it was perfect English. Now alarm bells went off and I started to think about all the security training we had up until then. Don’t give out information. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t be out after curfew. At least, I remembered them as very serious protocols. Probably, it was less paranoid dictates and more common sense advice.
“Yes, we are,” said Victor. I gave him a look but this man spoke English so I couldn’t say something like, “Why are you talking to this man, clearly he is a spy!?”
“Why are you here?”
“We’re Peace Corps volunteers. You?”
“I’m an Iranian truck driver.” Ironically, that should have put me at ease. Why would a spy tell us he was Iranian? But then, that’s what they want you to think, right?
To give a little context for my distrust and suspicion, at this time, then President Bush had put Iran on the list of Axis of Evil and had been making rather provocative statements. We were a little worried that war would break out and that we would be sent home, as Iran and Turkmenistan are neighbors, and Ashgabat lay very close to the border. On a different outing, we had climbed some of the foothills to the south of Ashgabat and could actually see Iran across a double fence line. It wasn’t that I thought Iran was evil, I didn’t. It was just that in my state of mind at the time I could have been talking to the Pope and probably thought he was spy.
My friend nodded. “Between Iran and Turkmenistan?”
The man sort of shrugged his shoulder and nodded his head. “Up to Kazakhstan.”
My friend nodded. Like it was no big deal. Like we all knew that Irainina truck drivers do runs from Iran to Kazakhstan all the time. In my mind the guy was practically telling us he was smuggling weapons and drugs. Russia is next to Kazakhstan, right? Nevermind the guy was in one of the most paranoid countries in the world. Our mail and packages didn’t make it to us without being opened and a few snacks stolen. It was doubtful that a truck made it across the entire country of Turkmenistan without being searched several times. None of this crossed my mind.
“What’s your name?”
My eyes grew wide. I had visions of this man finding us in our tiny village, as part of some strike force. No, worse. The Peace Corps Country director would call us into his office and sit us down.
“Boys. We lost the war. They knew exactly where to hit us and they hit us hard.” He’d shake his head in remorse. Then slide a picture across the desk. “Do you know this man?” We’d nod; tell him about the bus. “He gained valuable intelligence from that conversation and was able to get across the border before we could stop him. It helped Iran win the war. Why didn’t you follow the security protocol?” Then we’d be sent home with guilt hanging over our heads.
All this was going through my mind when the man turned to me.
I was startled but said the first name that popped into my head.
“Bob.” Victor rolled his eyes. The man chuckled.
“Nice to meet you…Bob. I’m Ahmed.”
Then he got off at the next stop. Perhaps I’d seen too many movies where the shady man asks too many questions and ends up knocking on our heroes door the next day. I might have also been in the middle of reading The Great Game, detailing how Russia and the British Empire fought over Central Asia in a high stakes game of espionage, war, and exploitation. Also, a little of the paranoia displayed by the government may have crept into my psyche and I saw duplicity everywhere. Culture shock? Homesickness? Who knows. We never saw the man again. And no one came knocking on our doors. We made it back to our host village and continued our training and eventually I stopped seeing everyone as nefarious.