17 August 2007

"I love life"

O, I have to tell you about this fellow, Bazyl, who I met Thursday evening on the grounds of the National Philharmonia while trying to get a feel for the policing of the streets, especially Chui Prospect, the main drag, during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit. The transformation of the downtown has been amazing. The streets are damn near clean enough to eat off. Most times they’re so dirty you probably wouldn’t even notice if someone crapped on them. I’m serious. There were no street vendors on the corner of Manas and Chui or below ground in the concrete pedestrian tunnels, They are ordinarily buzzing with commercial activity but not the last couple of days because that intersection links the “White House” (the presidential and executive and offices) and the parliament on an east-west plane with the presidential home and Ala Archa National Park, the closest majestic photo backdrop, which runs north and south. When official traffic whizzed by, the police cadets who lined the streets would not even permit you to move or walk--in any direction. (Hey, they had to have something to do after standing there in uniform for hours.) The TV coverage on one of the Russian stations later last night indicated the strategy paid off in spades. Bishkek appeared very clean, orderly and almost pastorally quiet, which is anything but true.

Anway, Bazyl just couldn’t stop talking and kept repeating “I love life!” and “In God we trust” in English. A lovely guy but he just wouldn’t shut up. He showed me all of his washed-out photos from Malaysia, mostly Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore, many of them two or three times apiece. That was after a full display and description of his passport. After southeast Asia, he pulled out his photos, ticket stubs and other memorabilia from a trip in 2005 to China that included Urumqi, Xian, Peking and Shanghai. “O I love life.” His face was aglow. “In God we trust, da? On the dollar, da?” looking at me. “Uh-huh, da,” I replied.

He was alone in every photograph and claimed he is a janitor at the White House. He later revealed (as best I can tell given our language limitations) that he was married for 28 years, has two sons, 28 and maybe 17, and has no interest in women. (Why did he tell me that at least three times?) “Who took the photos?” I asked, using my own pocket-size camera as a prop. About half an hour later at a Turkish restaurant above the Beta store he convinced the thoroughly pu-out waitress to take two photos of us together smiling at our table on the balcony. Then as we were walking out, he had one of the Turkish “floor walkers” take another. (These “walkers” or straw bosses are always men dressed in suits. They never lift a finger. Their job is telling someone else what they need to do. They only thing these use their hands for is to shake another hand.) The whole damn episode in the restaurant was a little embarrassing, but Bazyl was harmless and figured I’d best roll with it.

But how can a janitor, age 57 (a year older than me, according to his passport), afford to vacation in Kuala Lumpur? How long would he have to save for airfare assuming he probably isn’t paid more than $50 per month and that’s being generous, maybe doubling his actual salary, on the possibility that working at the White House has some financial perk

“O I love life,” he laughed, running his hands over his beaming face, then turning his eyes upward. “In God we trust. In Allah we trust. Very good, very good. O I like you Americans.”

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