Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Landlady's Brother

I’ve discovered there are certain universal truths that exist no matter where you are on the globe: taxi drivers are the biggest con artists, politicians love playing power games and landlords will do anything to avoid spending money. I’ve now been in my flat on Chekhov Street (named after the writer, presumably, not the ensign on Star Trek) for almost a month. I moved in rather quickly upon arrival, as my temporary digs were costing me $40 a night and I hate to bleed money. The flat seemed pleasant enough upon first inspection, though the frilly and fragrant boudoir of a bedroom hinted that the last occupant was likely a chain-smoking lady of the evening. The rest of the apartment was fine, though the windowless holes in the stairwell lent new meaning to the term “open air concept” and promised that the building would offer little protection against the extremes of any season. Regardless of these reservations, I anted up my first month’s rent in US dollars, the unofficial currency of choice here in Tajikistan, and moved in.

One month on, I’ve learned that acting in haste results in something other than leisurely repentance. A power cut on a Saturday evening was an annoyance at first, but I had been warned that such losses were common in Tajikistan, so I grimly accepted it until I looked out my window and saw every other building on my block lit up with a cheery glow against the approaching gloom. Things became a bit more urgent when I opened the door of my flat and found my stairwell also basking in light. As much as I appreciate having a unique apartment, I hadn’t counted on being the only one in my building with optional electricity. And here is where the fun began, as complaining to one’s landlady becomes a real test of linguistic acrobatics when one doesn’t share a language with her. Thankfully, one of my office mates with a solid grasp of Russian was willing to make the call on my behalf. When word came back that nothing could be done until the next morning, I cursed under my breath, put on all of the fleeces I could find and rolled myself up in Miss Kitty’s duvet for the night. The next morning, as promised, the landlady arrived with her electrician in tow, who also happened to be her brother. Supervising a team of individuals who appeared more interested in me than in the wiring, he nevertheless managed to get the lights back on, so I thanked them and counted myself lucky.

Until the following week.

That’s when I noticed hot water starting to stream into my bathtub. Not a huge flow, but a steady drip that promised worse if left unrepaired. Again, a phone call to the landlady through a helpful office mate resulted in a promise that a visit was in the near future. But while electricity failures rate high on a landlady’s scale of urgency, a hot water leak is a bit less concerning, apparently. So, three days later, she arrived with her plumber, who is also her electrician and brother. I greeted them again, as they were becoming the most regular guests in my flat, and the brother set about to fix the leak. I had every confidence in him after his deft handling of my power loss, but it soon became apparent that he had skipped class on the plumbing days of his handyman school. Asking for a wrench, he sent his sister downstairs to fetch it, leaving the two of us alone for a few minutes. And this is where things took a turn for the bizarre.

Knowing I couldn’t speak Russian or Tajik, he started an impromptu game of Charades to communicate with me. He began by running his fingers around his face and tracing out what looked like the letter “M” over his head. “You want to take a shower?” I asked, “You’re sad, maybe?” I’m terrible at Charades, even more so when the person doesn’t understand my guesses, but apparently I was so far off the mark that even he sensed I was in the wrong ballpark. But he kept doing the motions, so I kept guessing. “You like birds, no, wait, you believe in angels, no, you’ve just escaped from a mental institution?”. Shaking his head vigourously after each wrong answer, he finally gave up and said one of the few English words he knew, “ Woe-man”. Oh, man, I thought. This didn't clear things up at all. Hoping he was asking me if I liked women and not if I needed to be fixed up with one, I nodded my head and smiled. Pointing to the floor, he appeared to be asking if I had a partner here, so I shook my head and explained in my best Tarzan-speak: “No woman here. Woman Holland”. That’s probably not how Kristel would prefer to be introduced, but at this point, simplicity was the key. The word “Holland” proved a puzzler to him, though, so he shook his head and said, “Woe-man” again, pointing at the door. With a sinking feeling, I realized that he was trying to set me up with his sister, so I smiled and shook my head, hoping he would take that as a sign of my lack of understanding, rather than a rejection of his flesh and blood. Thankfully, at that moment, his sister reappeared with the wrench and he could get a start on bashing my faucet off the wall.

After twenty minutes or so, the tap had clearly been defeated and hung at a nifty forty-five degree angle, exposing a gaping hole in the wall. Through the hole, a flow of water now gushed into my tub, no longer impeded by the pesky plumbing. Looking at me, my new friend shrugged his shoulders, and even I could guess what that meant. Shutting off the water, he left his sister to try to straighten up the remains of my bathroom while we stood out in the hallway. Safely out of sight of his sister, the Charades again started, with him pointing at my bedroom and resting his head on his hands to indicate sleep and then pointing at the bathroom where his sister continued to work away. At that point, I knew that I was having my chain pulled, though I’m not sure that particular action would have translated properly into Tajik had I demonstrated it for him. So, I laughed at him and said “Nyet spasiba” and hoped that his sister would reappear soon to rescue me. Promising to return the next day to finish the job, the two of them left me to enjoy my waterless apartment.

And waterless it stayed, for the next four days, though the landlady and her brother did show up during that time to check in, as if paying a visit to an incarcerated relative. It wasn’t until the leak deepened and spread down into the flat below me that something was finally done. Arriving at my door somewhat out of breath on Saturday night, the landlady pointed to the floor and said “Up”, which entirely confused me. I assumed the direction of her pointing was more accurate than her description, so I followed her downstairs to survey the damage. And the water had indeed spread to the ceiling of the bathroom and kitchen of the downstairs flat, with my new neighbour glaring at me as though I had filled my tub to overflowing and gone out for the day. I made empathetic noises that I hoped would mean the same in Tajik and we returned to my flat to try to complete the repairs. The landlady’s brother arrived soon after, and I didn’t need pantomime to understand that he had been properly chewed out by his sister. Promising to return the next day to finish the job, he once again left, this time shutting off the water to half of the building to prevent further damage. And he was true to his word, arriving promptly on Sunday morning to finally return the faucet to its rightful place on the bathroom wall. By this time, the novelty of trying to communicate with me, whether through Charades or not, had clearly been played out, and we only exchanged the most perfunctory of greetings and thank yous before he left. But I didn’t feel slighted. Given the state of this flat, I suspect that there will be plenty of opportunities for us to talk again in the near future.

The Varzob Valley

Located a short 20-minute drive outside of Dushanbe, the Varzob Valley is a favourite location for expats looking to enjoy a hike. With a new group of friends from VSO, I set out to explore it on a brilliant Sunday afternoon.