I was taking a taxi between the towns of Fergana and Margilon in the Fergana Valley.
The valley makes up the far eastern tail of Uzbekistan, a “double-landlocked” country that not only lacks a coast line, but also borders only landlocked countries (Uzbekistan shares this dubious geographical honor only with Lichtenstein). The country was once home to the southern half of the Aral Sea (formerly the world’s fourth largest lake), but thanks to a brutal Soviet irrigation legacy, the sea has been most depressingly transformed into the “Aralkum” desert.
The taxi was a typical crappy old Russian Lada, but the drive would be short and the roads looked surprisingly well paved. My Italian travel companion sat in the back; her lack of knowledge of Uzbek and Russian would make communication with the taxi driver difficult, whereas my rudimentary understanding of both languages would allow me to engage in a few minutes of broken conversation before settling into an awkward silence.
Our taxi driver was an old Uzbek man, probably in his 70s. He was taciturn, but not in a grumpy way. We quickly agreed on a price and set off.
For the first few minutes of the drive, we chatted about the usual basic topics in Russian. Country, job, what I thought of Uzbekistan. Stretching the limits of my Russian vocabulary, connecting with another person, exploring new territory.
And then settling into an awkward silence.
I stared out of my window, eventually giving up on trying to think of something else to say, and instead getting lost in my own thoughts. Suddenly, the cab driver’s voice broke the silence, calling me back to awareness.
“I’ve never seen the sea. Never in my life. Just once, I would like to see the sea.”
The statement seemed to come completely out of the blue. I didn’t know quite what to say. My mouth formulated several replies, but none seemed appropriate, and eventually a silence resumed in the car that would last for the rest of the journey. The driver stared out of the windshield, going about his driving, unassumingly, perhaps a bit wistfully.
I looked out over the green fields of the Fergana Valley. Those fields stretched far and wide, and then turned into mountains and rivers and deserts, going on for thousands of miles all around. We were near the very middle of Asia. Central Asia.
What wonders and hardships had this old man seen in his lifetime? The Soviet years, the collapse, independence. And yet how would he ever see the sea? He was as double-landlocked as the rest of his countrymen, and almost certainly more so, owing to age and economic considerations. Of course, he understood all this far better than I did.
How many seas and oceans had I been fortunate enough to see in my lifetime? The Atlantic, the Pacific, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Red Sea, the Adriatic, and many more. Names on a map, checked boxes.
For the rest of the ride, I dreamed of sending this man on an all-expenses-paid vacation to a Caribbean resort. Watching him laugh and shout with joy as he splashed into the salty ocean for the first time.