The other day when I added it all up, I spent $10 on taxis. If you are a local in Astana, it is much easier to talk the taxi driver down in fare. Since I’m a westerner, I’m “fair” game. The other night one little old guy thought I was Chinese, that’s what he asked the Kazakh person who negotiated the ride for us to get to the old part of town. I think he needs his vision checked because he also missed the sign for where I live. I have NEVER been accused of being a Chinese person before. Another guy last night thought I was a “Russkie” with my fur coat and Russian scarf. No, I admitted, “I’m American.” He told my other Kazakh passengers who negotiated the price that if I knew how to speak in Kazakh, I would get my ride free. Yeah sure.
When on my own, I’ve learned to state the price that is reasonable and start going for the back door to open it. They usually don’t have time to say no. If where I want to go is not in their direction, they will say no even before I negotiate my price. I’ve learned that I can get to the university from my flat in less than 7 minutes if the lights are right and it should only be 400 tenge. Today I had my favorite taxi driver chase me down from where he was parked, he was yelling my name. Obviously he wanted ME to take him and not some gypsy cab off the street. My loquacious taxi driver named Yaheya (that’s probably not how you pronounce his name and certainly not how you spell it) was more than happy to drive me to work.
Perhaps Yaheya, to make my trip out to the university worth the 500 tenge, he tells me the latest he knows in news. You see, we are way past, “Where are you from?” and “Why are you here in Kazakhstan?” and “Which do you think is better, U.S. or Kazakhstan?” We are past talking about the weather which is a reliable Minnesota standby for conversation. Yaheya probably knows he is safe with using Russian cognates with me along with place names and people’s names. Here’s what I recall was said 12 hours ago in my taxi ride with Yaheya.
I started out by telling Yaheya in my very bad Russian that the president of Kazakhstan had visited our university yesterday. I listened carefully and had written out my notes in English because we, as foreign faculty, were given headsets so we could follow along with the president’s speech from a simultaneous English translator. Her English was a little archaic, something of the Old School kind of translation. I talked to a Kazakh administrator who sat next to me and asked if he understood the English that was spoken later by guest dignitaries. So he admitted, “I am like a dog, I can understand but I can’t speak it.” Yes, I guess that description fits me when it comes to conversing with Yaheya. I can understand about 50% of what he is saying but I can’t speak it. That’s when saying in Russian “I don’t understand, sorry” comes in real handy.
Next ,we hit on something about the Russian and Turkish embassies off in one direction while the U.S. embassy was behind us. Perhaps the U.S. embassy being the largest, I don’t know. I’m not sure where we were going with that but then we were rounding the bend by the Chinese embassy. Yaheya said that it was a big country and then he pointed over to where the Cuban embassy was located. He claimed it was the smallest embassy in Astana. Then I think we talked about Khruschev and the Bay of Pigs and Kennedy. Well, at least I KNOW we were talking about Khruschev’s infamous quote when he had been to New York in the 1960s and he had pounded his shoe on the table, “We will crush you!” I didn’t have to know the Russian words for this outburst. Just having Yaheya start talking about Khruschev in the same sentence and using his nonverbals by pounding on an imaginary table, I knew of Khruschev’s famous quote of hate towards Americans.
Well, at least I know Yaheya likes me. And to make sure this morning I got my money’s worth in a drive (and the stoplight change took about 5 times rather than the usual 2 times), he talked about the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Good thing I was up on the news myself because Yaheya’s “H”s always come out as “G”s making it sound like Pearl Garbor. Then, he reminded me it was the anniversary of John Lennon’s death which I didn’t care about. But this shows that my taxi driver is in the know about pop culture. Of course everyone in the former Soviet Union followed the Beatles.
Now here comes the sticky part where you have ABSOLUTELY no idea what the guy is saying. By this time we were close to the Bike Helmet structure to the right and other stadiums which are close to the univeristy. I thought we could stretch this conversation out a little longer if he could only come up with some other words I might even have a hint I would recognize. Nope, nothing doing! I just had to repeat, “I don’t understand, I don’t know.” Yaheya is always smiling when he tries to get his point across and we make eye contact frequently through his rear view mirror. Don’t worry he isn’t speeding, he seems to be in control of his car at all times.
But I’ll not forget his running after me, yelling my name because he knew I was a sure bet and perhaps he is getting return customers back to town from where the university is situated. In the meantime, I get a kick out of how much I can understand from my favorite taxi driver. I really think I need to take a Russian course so I can understand more of what’s going on. It’s not like I can go to Google translator to find out what all the memos I get in Russian are about.
Nah, this guessing game every morning is fun, it kind of humbles you before you show up for work to be hit with more Russian or Kazakh.