2005.08.01 Taraz, Kazakhstan

Fortune Teller

I spent most of the 31st taking buses back to Bishkek, then to the old city of Taraz, just across the border in Kazakhstan. The city was asleep when I arrived, sometime around 4:00 in the morning--no traffic or life anywhere on the streets. Exhausted, and having neither bearings nor orientation I resigned myself to catching a few hours of sleep the only place nearby: the guesthouse at the railway station.

I expected something run-down and grotty, so was happy to find that the facilities were all new, modern, and clean. I was even able to get a private room, and took a much needed shower.

Leaving the railway station dormitories this morning, I bought some basics for breakfast from a nearby shop: cheese, bread, yoghurt, and a large bottle of water. I sat along a grassy strip north of the station. Shortly after I sat down a woman approached me. She was wearing a long dress, her head covered by a scarf. Shaking a matchbox, she asked for a cigarette.

"No, I don't smoke. How about some cheese, instead?" I shaved a slice from the block in my hand.

She thanked me, then returned with a boy of about five. I shared some cheese with him, then with two older women who followed along.

"Are you Uzbek?" asked the first woman who approached me. (Up to that point I'd been saying everything in Uighur.)

"Nope. I'm American."

She waved an incomplete deck of playing cards, asking me something I couldn't understand. Pretty sure she was neither a three-card monty dealer nor interested in a game of Crazy Eights, I presumed she was offering to tell my fortune.

I declined: "I don't think I'd understand. Also, I don't have much Kazakh money now, either. I could pay you in cheese, though. How about that?" I offered her the block; she laughed.


"How about you?" I continued, "What ethnicity are you? You're not Kazakh, are you?"

"No, we're not Kazakh. We're Segin."

I had never heard the word Segin before. I had a suspicion I knew what it meant, though.

"Roma?" I asked, using a word I had heard that the Gypsy people used to refer to themselves.

"Da! Da!" she said, turning to another nearby Gypsy woman who smiled and repeated, "Roma."

After finishing my breakfast (I gave the left-over cheese, bread, and water to the Gypsies) I decided I shouldn't pass up the opportunity to have a bona-fide Gypsy read my fortune. I opened up my coin-purse, again stating that I didn't have much to offer. The fortune-teller pointed to the largest coin, a piece worth 100 Kazakh Tenge, approximately 75¢ U.S.. "This one will be enough," she said.

After shuffling the cards she selected half-a-dozen, drawing them into a small fan. Following her direction, I rubbed the 100-tenge coin across the cards, then blew on them. She described each of the cards and how they related to me. Once she started, she slipped completely into Russian, which I couldn't follow. It didn't matter--I wasn't expecting that I would actually learn anything, even if I had been able to understand every word. About all that I could gather was that the Jack (marked, not with a J, but rather with the Cyrillic letter B) somehow represented my heart.

At the end of the reading she had me lean forward. Reaching just above my forehead, she yanked a single strand of hair from my scalp. She then asked for paper money to wrap around the hair. I again showed her the contents of my coin purse, and asked if a coin would work. Evidently not. She found a surrogate scrap of paper, then folded it several times over upon itself, enclosing the hair inside.

"You need to bury this at the base of a tree. When you get some paper money, wrap it around this again. Then bury it."

Smiling, I slipped the wad of paper into my pocket, thanked her for the fortune, then hit the ATM and walked into town.