The Kazakhstan Tales: Gypsy Cab Politics
I give the address of my school, and the man nods and agrees to my price. Slipping into the backseat, I shut out the freak April snow, and we take off speeding down the streets of Almaty.
He’s silent for a few moments, but at a crosswalk – which Kazakhstani drivers observe with an almost religious fervor, unless they’re driving a diplomat vehicle – he finally speaks.
“Where are you from? Germany?”
It’s a common question, so common in fact that I sometimes lie to make it more interesting. I’ve been British, Scottish, and Canadian in the past. (Never say German if they ask; it’s most likely because they studied German in school and want to practice their skills.)
Today I was truthful: “I’m an American.”
“Ah, American!” He’s pleased which of course makes me feel a bit better. “An American guest! Do you like Kazakhstan?”
I do, although we both gesture to the falling snow and laugh.
“What is with this weather?” he asks. “Yesterday it was summer, and today winter has returned.”
Perhaps Nauryz has come too soon this year.
“It’s warmer in America, isn’t it?”
I think about the April Fool’s Day snow in the northeast, but he’s moved on before I can form the sentences in my mind.
“Ah, America,” he says. “Now that’s a real democracy!”
Oh, it’s to be a political conversation. Well, that’s better than, Can I have your phone number? or Can you teach my children English?
“America, they understand politics,” he continues. “Look at your president. Obama! Now that’s democracy, letting a black man lead.”
I’m generally more conservative myself, but I’d rather not have that conversation now.
“And he’s young! The young should lead nations, not old men!” he scoffs. He’s no spring chicken himself, so I’m intrigued by this.
“Yes, a young president is better. More democratic. Young people understand what the country needs. Not a 70-year-old president.”
My brain immediately remembers and understand – the Kazakhstan presidential elections were yesterday.
“20 years! We’ve had the same president for 20 years!” he remarks and shakes his head.
We drive further in silence. I mull over what he has said and what I know of Kazakhstan’s politics – which is, truthfully, very little. I remember what one of my local friends said yesterday when she explained why she voted:
We all know who will win. We vote because we wonder, ‘What if?’
In the ’80s, it was different.” My cab driver has resumed, honking his horn as we’re cut off by an SUV.
Very different, I’d imagine.
We’re almost to the school. He points to the clock and asks if I’m late. It’s 7:53, and I assure him that I’m okay – classes won’t begin for another 30 minutes or so.
“Do you take taxis often?”
“Don’t take them at night,” he tells me seriously. “It’s dangerous at night. My children, I make them come home before 10. It’s too dangerous now; too many bad characters about. It used to be safe, but no more.”
We’ve arrived, and I ask him to pull over. As I pay, he smiles and wishes me good luck in my life.
News Reports from BBC News
Kazakhstan: President Nazarbayev awaits re-election [2 April 2011]
Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev wins re-election [4 April 2011]