Every time we stop in the Wakhan valley, someone comes to greet us. In Namadguti, a Wakhan village on the southernmost edge of Tajikistan, this someone is Borye. It’s almost dusk and we’ve slowed down outside a magazin where people are congregating as the day ends. The fields a hundred meters up wave in the wind as people walk to and from their houses in the hills. Borye approaches me intently, asking in a shout if I speak Russian as if it was an order rather than a question. His eyes are sunken back and his face is a slight shade of red. He’s obviously had a couple drinks but seems generally to be in a good mood. When he realizes I can’t speak much Russian, he walks over to Jie and another man moves in to shake my hand. He asks if I speak Italian, which I find a bit out of place for this tiny town, but he himself also looks the part: dark hair, thick eyebrows, about 6’4” and built like André the giant. I say no –I cant remember much from my one j-term class at Middlebury— and try to build some other sort of conversation when I hear Jie’s voice over the intercom. “This guy’s asking if we want to stay at his house,” he says referring to Borye, “I’m not so sure, but what do you think about it?”
I’m not sure either. In principle it doesn’t seem like a great idea to stay with drunk strangers, but not an hour ago we had been talking about how much of a shame it was that we’ve turned down so many other offers to stay at peoples homes. Sometimes we’re just blindly stuck to a preconceived plan, other times it’s just been way too early in the day. I reflect briefly and look over.
“Ok, lets do it,” I reply. “I’m sure he’ll be an alright guy.”
We say yes and Borye calls us over to a path on the side of the building that leads toward the river. He points toward the direction of Afghanistan and then grabs one of his kids and puts him on the back of my motorcycle.
“They will show you the way. I’ll meet you there,” he doesn’t really say as much as he does imply. He grabs another kid and puts him on Jie’s bike.
The action is a simple one, and out of practicality more than anything, but already it gets rid of any concerns I have about him. If Borye is willing to trust me with his kids, I should be willing to trust him too.
The boy on the back of my bike, Ayub, is five and doesn’t talk much. He just points over my shoulder every time we need to turn. When we arrive he scrambles over the panniers and hops off the seat before I come to a stop. The boy with Jie, Ayub’s cousin Adis, is an extremely bright twelve-year- old with a round face and serious eyes. He explains to us in a slow combination of Russian and English that we can either park in the garage or put or bikes in the yard. Before we can decide, Borye returns and tells us to take the bikes through the front door. He throws down a piece of corrugated metal across the small stream before the entrance and the five of us manage to slot the bikes through one by one.
The house is a rectangular, one-floor mud brick Pamiri home slightly different than the others that fill the Wakhan. Its corners are a bit sharper and there’s a small covered entry in the front –instead of white, it's painted periwinkle purple. The house makes up less than a fifth of the family’s walled in land. After taking out our things, the two boys and the oldest of Borye’s sons, a quiet nine year old named Akmal, take us on a short tour.
In the garden flanking the house, Adis takes us through the different vegetables they’re growing: tomatoes, cabbage, carrots. When we don’t understand one, he digs around the roots of the plant and pulls it up to show us –it’s a potato. In amongst their small collection of apricot and apple trees, we pick fresh fruit while we look at the sky through the leaves. The boys show us how you can smash the shell of an apricot pit to get the almond out from inside. We eat handfuls more of apricots just to try to perfect the technique of cracking the pit with a stone: hitting it with enough force to open it but not so hard that the nut will be destroyed. Ayub watches on the edge of the garden, playing with the family cat who he treats more like a ragdoll than a living animal. He stretches it by the arms, squeezes it tight to his body and swings it under his legs as we walk in the yard. The cat seems less upset than we are. It keeps coming back and cuddling close, poking through the bend of my knee when I sit down to eat and crawling on Ayub’s stomach when he reclines.
“This cat is a hooligan” Borye says at dinner. “The kids pay more attention to the thing than they do to me”
When it gets dark, we head back inside. The entrance of the house is also where the family sleeps. A platform to the left is full with piles of red, cream, and blue rugs and intricate blankets. In they day they sit in a ceiling-high stack in the corner. At night they’re laid carefully in parallel for Borye, his wife, and each of their four children –all of who look perfectly like a cross between their two parents. We’re brought into a room to the right where a wooden landing surrounds a stove. It’s a design I’ve only seen in a documentary about the Beetles recording at Apple studios, but in that one there was a bed in the middle, slotted a half-floor lower than the rest of the room. The landing functions as a sort of indoor tapchan, and we sit down for tea, bread and more apples. The kids put on a mix of Tajik and Arabic pop songs on the computer and we’re joined by two of Borye’s brothers, one the same age as us, and the other much older. The younger works with Borye in Russia –they’re both back on vacation it seems— while the older works in the corridor as a driver. Before we eat, I wander around the house to find a place to wash my hands and find Ayub having a quick drink of tea in the kitchen, the whole teapot in his hands and the spout tripped out straight into his mouth.
I talk in a conversation with the Boyre's older brother in about two words of English and two words of Russian. His expression is earnest and sincere as he looks at me; he doesn’t smile very much, but when he does it’s extremely warm. His beard and the tops of his head are starting to grey. His voice is deep like a radio personality, and a bit grated as if he’s smoked his whole life. But his words are smooth and steady, like a jazz singer when he’s not singing.
Taking my map, he manages to explain that the divide between Pamiri’s and Tajiks. He traces out the lines to show that Pamiri’s spread from southern Tajikistan across Afghanistan and into Pakistan. This difference extends to looks, culture, religion and language. He explains that their family all speak Wakhan, a distinct dialect of Pamiri. He doesn’t speak Tajik, and his Russian isn’t that fluent either. In fact, we cant really understand any of them. Borye’s younger brother knows some English phrases every now and then, but everyone else speaks Russian in a way that even Jie, who’s Russian is pretty good, has trouble understanding. However, instead of giving up like most people do when there’s a miscommunication, Borye and his brother’s keep explaining until we understand, only accepting an answer that fully matches the question they were asking. We’re not just making small talk; they genuinely want to know. They need to know.
As the night winds on, Borye’s wife, Nazeera, who I didn’t even know was at home, makes a quick appearance with Borye’s middle daughter, Dinor, to give us a massive bowl of salad: tomatoes, dill, cucumbers, onions, yoghurt and bread –maybe even a bit of vinegar—all tossed together in a unexpectedly perfect balance. To match he asks if we want to drink some vodka, taping his neck with two fingers in the universal sign for getting drunk in this part of the world. Tonight’s as good of a time as any. We buy a bottle for 10 somoni and drink it from tea bowls while we’re force-fed salad. When I try to say I’m too full, Borye’s brother grabs my stomach with two hands and starts pushing up and down like he’s giving me some bastardized Heimlich. “Massage, massage!” He’s yelling. Everyone is laughing. I might actually throw up.
After both brother’s go home, we begin to set up the mats for beds. Akmal, who has barely spoken this whole time –but always has a coy smile like he’s plotting something— brings over his English book after a bit of coaxing by his mom. I read over his vocab words with him: car, cat, cap, cab. After each word he tilts his head up and looks toward the ceiling, trying to pretend like he’s about to remember the meaning. I pause for a bit to let him think, and then motion the object or draw him a picture. Each time, he responds back with a quick nodding of the head and a “yeah yeah yeah” as if he knew the answer all along. With a tacit understanding, we page through half the book, his parents looking on proud, Akmal increasingly interested in my charades.
In the morning we wake up early and drink salty tea with pieces of bread soaked into it. Boyre, the two boys, and Nadia, his youngest daughter, eat with us. I make some paper airplanes to give to Ayub, who constantly seems to have too much energy. He begins to launch them across the room straight into the wall. Running around giggling to fetch them with a huge smile and half-closed eyes, he barley notices when he almost knocks over a paint can as he trips on it. Boyre doesn’t seem to mind –he’s a lot quieter this morning when he hasn’t had anything to drink.
The kids all help us take things out to the bikes as we get ready to go. Now comfortable with having us around, they decide that they each want to have a turn riding on the motorcycles. They climb across the seats and on to the handlebars, trying on the helmets and even getting us to let them rev the bikes a bit in neutral.
I’m taking some photos and notice that Akmal keeps looking at the camera. I ask if he’d like to try. I show him how to turn the focus, where to look in the viewfinder, and how to release the shutter. In an instant he’s become the family photographer. He goes around the front yard asking different people to pose, sometimes taking and re-taking the same photo while slightly altering the composition. For the first time he starts to really open up to me. I can’t understand anything he’s saying – I think he’s talking to me in Wakhan— but we stand together as he tries to explain in a way that I can comprehend. I nod in the places it seems like I’m supposed to, and try to let him know that I’m actually really invested in what he wants to tell me. The camera looks huge in his small hands but he never stops shooting.
When we do leave, it’s a hard goodbye. As we get back onto the main road and drive through the trees whose shadows loom long across the road.
I’m extremely upset for reasons I still can’t fully articulate. Part of it comes from how grateful I am for this experience and the chance to even spend a short time with this family, but another, large part of it is that I’m filled with uncertainty. I don’t know what will happen to these kids; to be honest I’m worried that their life might not be so great. I know how cliché of an experience it sounds like, the ‘tourist comes to a new place and is so moved by the ridiculously short time he’s there despite barley understanding it’ —and maybe it is— but it doesn’t make the feeling any less real.
Boyre works his hardest for his family, the kids he holds under his arms and makes laugh with small simple motions, his wife and his brothers. Life is made even harder that he works so far away, and when he comes home, surviving in the Pamir feels like an uphill struggle. The valley is beyond beautiful now, but as the winter begins to rear up I’m sure that isolation creeps deep into every facet of daily life. To live in the Pamir is to be fated to struggle against nature: its terrain, its disposition and the geopolitics tied with it. It’s something these kids don’t have to worry about yet, something we never talk about, something that they can be oblivious to until the world becomes big enough to be a burden.
I picture Akmal’s face smiling at me as he turned back over his shoulder in the room as we ate. I pull down my visor, my eyes heavy with hopelessness, my chest knotting like the roots on the walnut trees.