There should really be a word for "feeling surprise at how familiar something feels after returning from a long absence." That's truly how I felt walking into the Almaty airport last night around 2am local time. The flight was long, but what else is new? It was the least painless it's ever been, so I have to be grateful for that.
Anyway, I hinted to some of you that there was a little drama at the airport when I arrived, so here's the full run-down. So, the organization that gave me this research grant - American Councils (known here as ACCELS) - informed me that they would be sending their driver to pick me up at the airport, which as I mentioned before was a huge relief. So imagine my dismay, after a painless flight, quick customs processing, and almost immediate baggage delivery, that the afore-mentioned driver was nowhere to be found!!! The swarm of taxi drivers in the receiving area immediately sensed my confusion and swooped in to try and "help" -- "Do you know the address? Well, if the driver's not here, just let me take you! Why wait around?" Normally I stay far away from these guys, but when I eventually told one of them that my driver was late, he very generously offered me his cell phone to call him. I called the director of ACCELS in Almaty, who sleepily answered the phone. I explained the situation, expecting her to assure me that the driver, Igor, would be there soon. Nope! "Ohhh, I thought you were coming tomorrow night!" she exclaimed. Oh, great - now I'm at the mercy of the taxi drivers, I thought.
She called back a few minutes later (on the taxi driver's phone) to tell me that Igor was on his way -- I could just imagine him stumbling out of bed and searching for his keys at that very moment. By this time, the taxi guy was complaining that I was using too many credits on his phone, so I had to cut it short. Then I decided I'd better pay him for his cell phone credits -- don't want to start out by pissing off the locals -- so I ran over to the airport's 24-hour currency exchange and got enough to give him a few bucks (300 tenge). Then, I figured I should get my own cell phone up and running, so I had to buy a SIM-card at a separate kiosk. But of course the phone's battery was dead (after two years of disuse), so I also had to ask the kiosk owner if I could charge the phone using her outlet. At this point, I'd been in Almaty for maybe 40 minutes, and already it felt like all hell was breaking loose.... But hey, on the bright side I was totally in control of the situation, getting what I needed, not wailing in despair like a lost little kid -- so, I guess I was actually doing pretty well, all things considered. :)
So besides the kiosk lady, her friend, and about thirty taxi drivers thinking that I'm a crazy American chick with a bit of a psycho independent streak, there was no harm done and things eventually got straightened out. Igor arrived about half an hour later, and then we were on our way to Batyes' apartment. Unfortunately, though, due to some construction near her neighborhood, we got lost on the way. Surprised? :P
FINALLY, at around 3:45 am, I stumbled through the front door of my friend's place. She had woken up to let me in and had to go to work the next day, but she had still taken the trouble to prepare some snacks and tea for me. We sat and talked for about another hour, then I finally got to sleep.
So you see, this is an extremely typical scenario in Almaty, which is why I'm so delighted that I can share it with you! Yes, schedules will get horribly mixed up. Yes, a series of sktechy taxi drivers will try to "help" you (and in some cases they actually do!). Yes, you'll have to throw together a last-minute contingency plan. Yes, your driver will get lost because he doesn't actually know the city as well as he claims. But at the end of it all, the door is open and there's a hot cup of tea waiting for you. I guess this is where the familiar feeling comes in....