SOME TRAVELERS PINE for more 19th century British-styled travel narratives from Americans. Remember those? Men filled with the powerful thoughts of superiority and such puny limbs that they had to hire half a nation to carry their baggage? Men who wrote about the glorious empire and yet were too ignorant to even tip their hat and say, “Excuse me,” in the local tongue. Some folks got no more conscience than a cow in a stampede.
The only American author I have read who emulates the British is our own RPCV Paul Theroux. He never admits to hiring porters but he manages to spit his tobacco juice on just about every living room floor he visits. ’Course, he manages to brag himself out of any place to lean on the bar too.
Tom Fleming’s book A Taxi to Tashkent is an American travel narrative, lean and honest without the barbed wire wrappings. It is the best non-fiction Peace Corps book I have ever read. Published only two years after he left Uzbekistan, it is one of two western first-hand accounts of life in a nation traveling through its own Age of Aquarius, reshaping itself after a sixty-eight year Russian occupation. His journalism background serves him well for he does not try to impress us with ten dollar words or opinions as outdated as the British crown and the notion of the Divine Right of Kings. Fleming is one American who relishes our everyman role of just being curious about our neighbors while trying to get along.
You do not have to be a RPCV to appreciate this wonderful book. Travel alongside Tom across the strange borders where you could still outflank border guards by slipping through a farmhouse, listen to the disappointment when his hosts are told that you cannot bribe policemen in the United States, explore the ruins of cities along the fabled Silk Road, and listen to the people like the taxi driver’s wisdom of the heart, “It doesn’t matter if you are Christian or Muslim as long as you believe in God.”
If you happen to be a not so exemplary RPCV like myself, you may be relieved to read about silly bureaucratic rules that invite the American can-do etiquette to undo them. You might even smile at a faux pas that sounds very familiar, regardless of where or when you served. American government employees dressed in clean, pressed clothing with expensive labels and seated behind huge oak desks surrounded by manuals filled with rules for our Volunteers should take heart: it’s easier to catch a horse than break him.
Lawrence F. Lihosit works as a city planner. His latest book is titled Across the Yucatan (2007), a humorous travel narrative available through A Book Company at abookcompany.net. He can be contacted directly at LawrenceFLihosit@gmail.com.