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  • Jerome Kocher

68. Airports

I’m in Tashkent, Uzbekistan going to the airport at 5am in the morning on my way to Baku, Azerbaijan. The main boulevard is lined with Uzbek and Russian flags, side by side, to welcome Vladimir Putin today. Our paths will not cross since I’m leaving.

At the airport boarding gate, a young woman waiting opposite me wears a SF Giants baseball cap. Her apparent father wears a NY Yankees hat. They’re reading an Uzbek newspaper, then he pulls out a roll of hundred dollar bills. Where are they going? The stand up and board the next plane for Vladivostok, Russia. 

Boarding the plane in front of me is a six foot five man, the tallest in line. I asked if he had played basketball. Of course, In Russia. I ask if the NBA recruits Russian players. Yes, he says, and gives me a name that I don’t recognize who plays for the Utah Jazz. He said he had played with him years ago when they were young. But he had to choose between sports (earning a million dollars) or education. He wisely chose education. 

( Silkavia is a new airline since 1924 in Uzbekistan. Its tail design pays homage to the Silk Road )

The Korean couple behind me has a son living in New Hampshire. Another friend lives in . . . it takes time until I can decipher his accent . . . oh yes, Pennsylvania. I’m finally in my aisle seat and some middle school age kids speaking English are stalled in line. I ask if school is out. Oh yes, we’re on a school trip. In Azerbaijan? That’s where we’re going. I’m puzzled.

In our seats now, the Koreans are passing out chocolate caramels to each other. The previous couple reaches over the seat to share one with me. Meanwhile an Indian couple is smiling down at us as they put their carry-ons in the overhead storage. His Queen’s English has an accent as he says “sorry” for bumping me with his bag. They have gentle smiles. But no chocolate. They haven’t broken the personal barrier of greeting the Koreans yet.

 ( Note: Safety video by Uzbekistan Airlines uses the Silk Road as a backdrop )

The video screens above the seats are playing the mandatory set belt and safety information. But this one is all staged on The Silk Road of centuries ago. Oxygen masks fall down in the Bazaar. They roll out a papyrus map on a wooden chest. Then the exit locations are displayed. Hmmm. First time I’ve seen this video. But I’ve already read about the production before in an online magazine on Turkmenistan Air flying to Ashgabat. The director was interviewed about the production schedule in Khiva, Uzbekistan. The director used the very same market I walked through yesterday. But he had staged the streets with centuries old dress and atmosphere to portray an otherwise routine airline safety instruction with some interest and touch of class.

( Ashgabat's Airport terminal in the form of a falcon, the symbol of its national airline )

The flight attendants are passing out small bags. No peanuts, but maybe nuts and dried fruit from the Fergana Vally in Tajikistan. They get closer. Bummer! It’s only in-flight ear buds, made in China. And I was primed for dried apricot.

An hour later I pass those same kids in the aisle. They’re playing UNO. They really are middle school. And, they’ll make great ambassadors. 

But wait, something more familiar. The next attendant just dropped a bag of Tuzlangan Veryong’oq on my tray table. For those of you flying Southwest Air, it is peanuts.

Arriving in Baku I see the kids again. Where’s the adult chaperone? I wait till the baggage claim and ask the obvious. Yes, they are American born, but living in Azerbaijan with their families in the Diplomatic Corps. Now it makes sense. But is UNO that popular across generations? Has it become an American global export along with jazz, baseball and the hot dog?

( New airport terminal in Baku, Azerbaijan )

These encounters may be common everyday experiences at airports and in airplanes. You may see someone and wonder. But you're not aware of it until you actually greet them or ask where they’re going. Then all the delicate threads with slight degrees of separation dissolve into a tapestry of a common humanity, a cross fertilization of cultures that breaks down our tribal origins. Similar experiences also happened centuries ago along the Silk Road, not at 30,000 feet but at caravansaries where traders and travelers mixed for the night in the crossroads of Central Asia.

So for me today, I do feel I am at the Center of the World. Everyone seems to be here. All roads lead to this airport. But in reality, no matter where we are, all we need to do is acknowledge the person next to us. Then time slows down and the world revolves around our attention and appreciation. We recreate the center of the world anew where ever our attention is.

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Jack Greenspun
Jack Greenspun

Beautiful last paragraph Jerome. As you reach out to the traveling tribes around you, present and past time are recreated as a fresh, alive moment.

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