I had the pleasure of taking a tour of Kazakhstan, the homeland of Borat in July 1991:
Photo: Borat with Kazakh girls at the beach
This country is located North of Turkmenistan, Northeast of Azerbaijan and South of Russia:
At that time it was known for having a lot of oil, and warehouses full of uranium to build atomic bombs. Mr. Nazarbayev was president during my visit, I think he remains president today.
He has used oil revenues to improve the lives of kazakhs so much that in the last election he won 95% of the vote. The government says that 90% of registered citizens voted, and that this man is so popular that even the opposition candidate voted for him. Nazarbayev is what I call an outstanding guy.
President Nazarbaev waves at his subdits
(Photo Daily Mail, UK)
How did he manage it? I think it was a combination of having a lot of money (because he controls a country that produces a lot of oil) a bit of populism, and of course he controls the media, the police, the army, the judiciary, the oligarchs….. Actually, who the hell knows who voted for whom and how many voted? In countries such as Kazakhstan, what matters is who writes the story.
But I have to get back to me:
It turns out that at that time the Soviet Union had fallen and the country had been a little bit freed from the Kazakhstan Communist yoke. Nazarbayev, who had been the leader of the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan became the leader of the Republic of Kazakhstan Nazarbayeva (that´s the way the locals call it).
To fix the trouble caused by the economic chaos after the fall of the USSR, he announced that he was interested in foreign investment, especially in the oil industry. In those days I worked with an American oil multinational, we were pushy and we thought that the former Soviets would be easy victims. And so, we happy few went on a tour of Kazakhstan, to see what we could get.
Everything was fine at first. We were a party of six, including a great translator, a White Russian named Ivanov who looked like a two meter tall walrus in suit and tie. If you see him tell him I remember him because he was so nice.
We left Moscow and flew to Alma Ata (Almaty), the former capital, which is a beautiful city. Even at that time we could get food and everything, and the natives were super friendly, especially when they saw we had dollars.
But after Alma Ata things became horrible. We flew our plane to Aktau, which is on the coast of the Caspian Sea. It was hot, and the place was ugly. We stayed at the best hotel we found, a typical hotel of that era called the Intourist. Some of you will understand me if I say these Intourists were not up to Soviet standards anymore. By now they have been replaced with much better hotels suited for the foreign traveler. This is called progress.
Because I didn´t know what Kazakhstan was going to be like, I had brought boxes of bottled water, food to prepare in the room, and of course drugs. My mates were mostly crickets compared to my ant, and laughed at me because I was always running up and down carrying my boxes. I even carried a radiation detector just in case (but its alarm never sounded).
The leader of our group was an Italian gentleman named Fred. Fred spoke excellent Russian, which did not worry me much until later, when my Russian got better and people started going nuts claiming I worked for the KGB (FSB). When I think about it, Fred may have been CIA. He could not be an Italian spy because the Italians do not have those.
Anyway, hanging around with Fred taught me I had to be careful when I hung around with foreigners who spoke good Russian (expats living in the former Evil Empire are well known to speak Russian like the actor Johnny Weismuller, “Me Tarzan, you Slave”).
So, back to Aktau….Arriving at the hotel, Fred, who was a little overweight and couldn´t breathe, told us that he was first in line to register and asked the room on the lowest floor possible, which happened to be on the ground floor next to the cafeteria. Fred was very happy with the room location, and left carrying his small suitcase with a big smile.
But I wanted to earn the goodwill of my colleagues to see if they helped me carry my boxes, and so I volunteered to be the last one.
And so it came to pass, that when my turn came they only had one room left, and on the fifth floor. Imagine the crisis I had. I was traveling with a huge suitcase, and several boxes of food and water. But the others were gone (except Ivanov). So I had to carry everything, making several trips up the stairs because the elevators weren´t working. The only one who bothered to help me a little was good Ivanov, who sat in the lobby watching over my boxes while I ran stairs back and forth.
When I finished I was quite tired, the temperature was around 30 degrees C (90 degrees F), and it was ten o'clock at night. I took a shower with cold water and lay down on the bed. It was like a hospital bed, but it was pushed against the wall. Because it was so hot, I didn´t use the cover, and I fell asleep in three seconds.
But suddenly something woke me up… I felt a tickle on my right leg, the one I had against the wall, and that tickle was climbing slowly up to my knee.
The Intourist had a really handy system to turn on the light. The single bulb hung by a wire from the ceiling, and had a string next to the bed. I sat up and I pulled the cord to see what the hell was the tickle, and saw with horror that I had a huge cockroach standing upright on my knee, rubbing his hands as if he were saying a prayer before biting me, or whatever that damn thing was going to do. I reacted quickly and gave it a blow karate style with the edge of my hand. That sent it to hell. Then I saw another cockroach on the wall!
Photograph: Imitation Kazakh roach
I was a trained traveler, so I looked in one of my boxes for the spray bottle loaded with insect poison, gave a little to the cockroach to smell, and it fluttered to the floor, where I proceeded to crush it gently with the heel of my foot. I was so annoyed I had to kill it twice.
After bringing the two roach bodies to the toilet I cleaned my knee and my foot. Then I gave the floor and walls a coat of insect venom, turned off the light and went back to bed. But I stayed awake, I was a little nervous thinking that perhaps I had not applied enough poison to the wall. I got paranoid and pulled the little cord to turn the light ... imagine my surprise, because five or six cockroaches were poised on the wall, waiting for me to fall asleep to avenge their two dead friends.
I jumped out of bed again, gave them poison, and they died fluttering just like they were supposed to. But on reflection I realized that these were very kazakh live cockroaches on the wall and maybe they could walk on poisoned walls without a problem (probably because the poison wasn´t strong enough, or because they wore tiny boots, who knows?).
This got me thinking, and I performed an experiment ... I laid down on the bed, turned out the light, and pretended to be asleep. After about two minutes I turned on the light, and indeed the wall was covered with cockroaches. But this time I was calm and I observed that after they were lit they scurried into a crack in the corner. I did a quick calculation of the volume of the building, and saw that I didn´t have enough poison to overcome so many roaches. I had to use a different method. So I decided to use a less lethal but simpler system ... I took a blindfold from one of my boxes, put it on, and slept with the light on.
The trick worked very well, and I slept the rest of the night like a baby. In the morning I went down to the lobby, and I found my traveling companions. All of them had slept very badly, mostly because the mosquitoes had been awful, or because they were covered with cockroaches. But the worst was Fred. His eyes were red, he hadn´t shaved, and smelled like smoke.
Imagine my surprise when I asked if mosquitoes and cockroaches had kept him awake and he replied:
"Never mind that, my room had a crack in the floor, and huge centipedes started coming out right after I turned on the light. I couldn´t turn it off because if I did out came a flood of cockroaches, and to make things even worse mosquitoes were coming in through the hole in the window. So I filled the crack in the floor with paper and I set it on fire. I spent all night making a fire. This kept the centipedes, mosquitoes and roaches from attacking me"
Poor Fred had wanted the room on the ground floor, which was the worst and cheapest because it had no breeze and was full of bugs. During the rest of the trip we came to realize that poor man was a very good lawyer, and spoke Russian very well, but he wasn´t practical like us, who were used to survive in the oil fields.
When I think of it, I don´t think Fred was a CIA agent, he was quite tiny and chubby and didn´t look like those spies one sees in the movies.