Charlie emerges a while later, tea in hand, and joins me. The call comes to reconvene in the main conference hall. We answer the first one, get there early, sit in the lounge area. I want to take a picture of Charlie and reach for my camera. It’s gone. I check all pockets, bags, etc., 50 times over. I empty all of them bare at Charlie’s urging. Nothing.
We walk back to the other end of the conference center. No camera. Charlie asks the gate-keeper to the lunch area to please find some security that speaks English. He does, but apparently the concept of ‘lost and found’ is not a functioning one in Kazakhstan.
I’m not surprised, but my heart sinks anyway. The 20-year old security explains that he’s just a volunteer and to let him find some real building security. He does. Three of them come over. They’re trying to take the situation seriously, but one is also having a hard time containing he laughter. I’m ready to give up, but Charlie won’t have any of it.
He’s sure it will turn up. “Security cameras,” he says, “they’re everywhere.” To which I respond: “I appreciate your optimism Charlie, but all they’re going to show is someone picking it up and walking off.”
The guards keep walking back and forth between their station at the front of center and us, still smirking. Our initial contact, however, still seems determined to crack the case. He manages to get the three of them to actually walk back to the scene with us to have a look at what cameras might have had a view.
As we approach, a man as big as a mountain in actual police garb turns. Seriously, this guy was like one of those Soviet creatures you’d see in a Stallone movie: 9-ft tall, chiseled, with fists the size of cantaloupes. Pinched delicately between two of his fingers, however, as he extends one hand towards me, is my camera.
I’m beside myself. Charlie’s very happy too. But happier than anyone else is the volunteer. He’d cracked the case! I thank everyone, even the smirk brigade, profusely before demoing the camera for the very interested volunteer. I thank him again and resume my day’s business.
[It is now 2 a.m. local time and I’m at the Almaty airport, having flown down from Astana at 10:35 p.m. after my second night’s sleep. It is 3 p.m. central time yesterday (Wednesday) at home. I touchdown at 1 something p.m. home-time tomorrow.]
Charlie had volunteered to take me to the market to buy some vodka to take home. After we’re done at the conference, we hit the road. Charlie once wrote an article about how one of the problems with Astana was an insufficient number of taxis. The upside, he explained, was that you could readily turn any car into a cab.
He’s eager to demonstrate. We walk out to the main road, and literally faster than he can say “What we do now is turn around, put our thumbs out, and….” than a car has pulled over. Charlie negotiates the terms, we jump in, and our young-20’s something driver takes us on our way.
Have I mentioned that no-one in Astana wears seatbelts? Even in the real cabs they’re buried to the point of inaccessibility. This guy has taken it to the extreme though, nothing but empty bolts being where the shoulder straps in the back were once mounted.
We get to our destination safely in any case, and all of $2.50 lighter. It turns out the market is a fully functioning, brand new, modern shopping mall. I change some $ at the bank and we hit the grocery store. Aside from all the normal meats, produce, and dry goods it features cheap alcohol and even cheaper cigarettes; 99 cents a pack. Charlie’s fairly certain the latter two features are a government placate-the-masses scheme.
We decide to walk back. Residential Astana is block after block of giant shiny new apartment complexes. You sure hope it all works out for the country, because if it doesn’t this shit is gonna look like Cabrini Greens real quick, or at best, Novo Beograd.
It was nice to see some children, and other seeming workaday normalcy. I’d been starting to wonder.