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“How much to Almaty?”

A grungy ex-Soviet bear boxed inside his Lada threw his cigarette out the window and leaned over to the passenger window to get a better look at me. “Three.”

“Forget it,” I casually looked down the dirt-covered Silk Road towards the ex-capital of an ex-land. My Russian wasn’t perfect, but it also wasn’t coming from the mouth of a tourist. Two years in this place can teach a person a lot of things, especially when a gypsy cab was ripping him off one hundred and fifty tenge (about a dollar).

“Okay, one-fifty.” The bear grumbled and opened the door without looking at me.

This routine was almost daily. I would walk across the dusty highway, pose in such a way as to appear to be pointing to something on the road. A bug? Road kill? My past life as a painfully optimistic smiling American boy? I would assume this pose until a car would slow and stop ahead of me, usually a Lada, but sometimes an aged Lexus or worn-out Mercedes. Luxury from a past life in a different country now exported to this developing world, on this stretch of road, a run-down Kazakh running these ancient machines to a rusty graveyard. Would I miss this when I would be standing under the infinite stretch of supermarket lights of the West?

I threw my bag and then my body onto the front seat. I noticed a small pair of boxing gloves dangling from the rearview mirror dressed with the stars and stripes. We moved towards Almaty with pop-Kazakh dombra strumming electro-rap blasting from the blown-out speakers. He turned the radio down and lit another cigarette. Questions were brewing and were soon to bubble up into the cab. I was ready for this.

– “You from England?”
– “I’m American.” I pointed to the hanging boxing gloves.
– “Ahh, okay,” his face sparked up. “What are you doing here?”
– “I teach English in a village.” I wanted to ask him what he did before it happened – before Perestroika.
Maybe he worked at the chicken factory or was an engineer? Once I met a mathematician who was now working a gypsy cab. I tried to imagine something happening to the United States as to put Bill Gates behind the wheel, haggling for an extra dollar. It was impossible, unimaginable; but it was here and now in this gypsy cab.

“What do you think of Kazakhstan?” He glanced over to me with a concerned look.

“It’s an unforgettable place.” I wanted this to be a compliment, and I hoped he understood.

“How long have you been here?”

“A little over two years.”

He glanced ahead and saw some people pointing to the ground. He stopped the car, told me the roll the window down and yelled across me to the people waiting outside. “Where to?”

The young man with his grandmother leaned inside and yelled back. “To the Mosque.”

“Get in.” The driver said as the boy and his grandmother crawled into the backseat. No price negotiation was necessary.

The faster we moved, the more the volume of the pop-Kazakh was turned up until I found myself yelling answers at the smoking bear.

“Can you do me a favor when you go back to America?” He turned down the radio and downshifted.

“Sure,” I said, having absolutely no idea what he was about to ask me.

“I am going to give you my telephone number and I want you to speak with Sylvester Stallone about needing a personal driver.”

We rolled into Almaty and stopped at the mosque. The boy and his grandmother paid and got out while I stayed in the car watching the driver writing his information on a piece of paper for me. It had his name and telephone number.

Matt