Consider the Line-Cutter
As we are about to cross into the Fifth Stan, locals are shoving our group through the overcrowded customs and border patrol building like I am the last little bit of toothpaste left in the tube. The English (who I am told are known for their ability to queue) aren’t having any of it. While no one likes to be pushed, I can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. I have been lucky to experience largely civilized post-war, third-world-style queuing in my life as an American, but those years spent waiting in perfect order have given me plenty of time to ponder the queue in more abstract and theoretical terms. the following is me musing about lines. Feel free to skip it.
I will try to keep this brief, but first we must consider the facts as they are seen in the world that I, and likely also you, inhabit. The queue derives from a sense of fairness because, as we wait in line to obtain a good or service, the simple logic of “first come, first serve” reveals that forming a line makes the most sense. If you got here first, the logic follows that you should be closer to the place you are trying to reach. So, not only do those most deserving get helped first, assuming of course that we can measure how much one deserves something by how early they show up to obtain it, but the administrators of the line also know who to help next in line, accelerating the entire process. In this way, the queue is not just best for those who show up early, but it is better for everyone. Commies and Capitalists alike agree: queuing keeps the masses in order.
None of this is likely new to you. In fact, maybe it is such old news that you haven’t even thought about the logic I outlined in the previous paragraph because it seems so second-nature, and so obvious. Let’s go back to the time we all first started thinking about The Queue as more than a way of maintaining order at Starbucks. As painful as it may be, let’s go back to the grade school cafeteria with the long lines, the disappointing food, and the ‘tough kids on the block’ who muscled their ways to be the 'tough kids on line' to get the last chocolate milk. If your school was anything like mine, justice largely prevailed and—even in self-centered youth—your peers could justly navigate a line without too much cutting in line. Sometimes, however, the hall monitors were busy and you would witness someone “cutting” everyone else. You may recall there were two types of cutting. The more traditional, and generally more egregious, form—known simply as “cutting”—was when someone jumps in line randomly in front of someone else. The second type, known as “back-cutting,” takes place when someone finds an accomplice in line, befriends them, and uses the guise of friendship to distract those behind them (“the bystanders”) from the obvious cutting maneuver. The cutter slips in behind the accomplice (thus “back-cutting”) and gets to pretend he is too distracted with catching up with his friend to notice all the people who will now get their food a minute later because of this injustice.
Now, why does any of this matter? I have many fears about how I come off as I write travel literature encompassing all of the UN-represented world, and foremost is that my opinions seem too reductive, prejudiced, or racist. Central to the heart of travel literature is comparison. We travel to see how we are all different, and we travel to see how we are all the same. Much of the world, I have come to learn, queues the way we do in the West. But many don’t. Lines are often an ideal that cannot be executed well in practice, or they appear to be a generally accepted part of life, but are almost consistently violated. Not only does this whole idea not fit into my we-are-all-the-same narrative, but it also doesn’t fit into any of the stereotypes I have been told and told not to believe. Asians, to summarize dozens of boring management textbooks I pretended to read in college, are supposed to believe in the collective over the self. The greatest flaws of our economic and political systems are that the individual values itself above the group, and yet I feel more valued in the cold, heartless capitalism of the United States than in the crazy queues of Asia. The stereotype of Asians being passive can also be debunked from my experience, unless you consider being systematically decked by a dozen angry Kazakhs to be a demonstration of passivity.
Here’s the thing: wandering the world shows you a lot of things you don’t want to see. I am reminded of a definition recited by one of my high school teachers. She explained that a documentary is “something you are not supposed to see.” If you subscribe to this notion, as I do, then I seek nothing more, I can seek nothing more, than to be a documentarian in my writing. I cannot control what I see, and I should not filter what I write. But I implore you not to take my negativity as criticism, or worse, as condemnation of a given place, people, or culture. That is reductive. By telling my experiences, and some of my thoughts surrounding them, I only seek to convey a truth, specifically the truth of how I am feeling at the time of writing.
In India, line-cutters seem to appear in every line. They are inevitable, appear so regularly, many argue, due to the nation’s poverty. Cost of living regularly ranks among the lowest in the world, and so it is not inconceivable that people living in places where resources are scarce are more likely to resort to unethical methods to get what they want or need.
With all due respect, the many queues of Asia can be ruthless anarchic hellholes that make an introverted person striving to live beyond pushoverdom shake with anxiety. In this way, travel has made me grow a lot as a person. I feel I don’t let myself get jostled around, both literally and figuratively, as much as I used to. There is a line cutter, a bystander, a victim, and back-cutting accomplice in all of us. What are we to do about it except stand up when we can and keep ourselves from becoming the line cutters? Back in Kazakhstan, when I make space in front of me, for the girl standing behind me getting jostled by a local, he gets upset and pokes me in the back. And not in a friendly Facebook way. The girl behind me was a part of our group, and almost certainly arrived before the man, and yet he still felt he was the one being wronged by letting the young American woman cut me.
Where is the logic? Where is the order?
The cold truth? Somewhere with development, money, and additional border guards. When I am poked, I have no choice but to turn the other cheek, if only to avoid getting my eye taken out. Kazakhstan is still beautiful to me, and you should still go there.
Almaty features some of the most impressive Soviet architecture in Central Asia. The most impressive monument, depicting Soviet soldiers emerging from a stone like an angry Mount Rushmore, commemorates those who gave their lives in WWII. The Soviet Union, which encompassed Kazakhstan, lost 27 million soldiers and civilians in that conflict, which is greater than the current population of Australia. The serene monument in Almaty pays solemn respect to those lost.
Adjacent to this memorial, we visit Almaty’s most impressive building: Ascension Cathedral. Inside, the sunlight bathes in colored light from the stained glass windows. This doesn’t even compare to the outside, which is decorated like a gingerbread house. Out front, children chase pigeons and vendors sell popcorn. Aside from Boryspil, Ukraine, this has to be the happiest place in the former USSR.
Almaty: Separate Ways
On our final night together, our group basks in the inevitable indecision that comes when 16 adults have all of their decisions taken care of them for two weeks, and then are released into the wild. For fifteen minutes, we discuss potential spots for dinner, and only agree that there must be beer, and there must be things on the menu other than shish kebabs. I pick the closest, nicest restaurant on Google Maps and implore everyone to accompany me there so that we don’t spend all night in the lobby. The entire walk I feel the immense dread of making a decision for a group. Why would I choose a restaurant from another former Soviet country, and a Central Asian one at that? Of course they won’t speak English, and I am almost certain their most popular dishes will be kebabs.
When we arrive to the Georgian restaurant, only a couple of blocks from the hotel, it is clear we are the only party that night, and likely the largest English-speaking party ever to visit that restaurant. Thankfully they have beer (though only one type), a few food options other than kebabs, and two whole English menus (with outdated prices). The waitress even speaks a couple of words of English! I take my role as translator in stride, knowing this would be the last opportunity to practice Russian for awhile.
Last Day of Camp
Like the last day of camp, when all your new camp buddies slowly start getting picked up by their parents, the good people I had come to know began catching flights out of town. Our tour guide, whom I had toasted the night before and offered our group’s tip, becomes a fixture in the lobby and attached restaurant, and we say hello to him on our ways into and out of the hotel as we would a much-respected doorman who had seen it all. I had not added any extra nights at the end of the tour, and my 6 pm departure flight the day after means I am to spend a night bedless unless I book something quick.
Nena, who booked an extra night, mentions that she has an extra bed and kindly offers it to me. I am ecstatic, as this means I won’t have to scramble for a last-minute booking, and can live one more day in the supreme luxury of a 3-star hotel, before largely committing to the South Asian hostel life for the next few weeks. I express my gratitude, but Nena won’t have any of it. She explains she is only repaying me for my translation in the Ashgabat airport, and for my messenger services in the Uzbek desert that kept her from missing even more of the tour than she already did. When she leaves early that last morning, I awake to the sound of her packing and we say goodbye, bidding one another safe travels until we meet again.
The last day, I meet with the two young American ESL teachers and we venture together to Kok Tobe, a sort of mountaintop theme park with exquisite views of Almaty. The three of us watch the sunset as we descend the cable car, then part at their hotel before I join our guide and a couple of other remaining travelers for dinner. We visit an American-themed diner/ pub and I happily gorge myself on terrible food that I miss so much, despite only being away from the States for two weeks. I know for sure why the food is so good, and it isn’t the grease. At least not entirely. It’s that I don’t know when I’ll be home next. I’ve had to answer the question quite a bit as I have gotten to know these fellow travelers: when will I go home next? It concerns me that, despite all of the other hardcore globetrotter, I am the only one with no return date. Each time, I say I don’t know when I’ll be back, joking that I’m not sure if I’ll be back. I don’t know if that question has an answer. There’s a lot of world left, and I long for the day when I can count on my fingers and toes the countries I have yet to visit. One thing is for sure: getting to that point is going to be awesome.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.