SPLAT! The grape hit me on the cheek leaving a wet spot and soggily fell to the floor. Angrily, I spun around to see who might have thrown it but not a single eye was focused on me. All the vendors were working over their produce as if I did not exist. So I went back to photographing the market in the exotic, fabled city of Samarkand in Soviet Central Asia.
It seemed a miracle to even be there. Gorbachev’s loosening of restrictions had been in effect for only about a year and we were one of the first groups of Americans to be able to travel freely without Intourist “minders” dogging our steps. Our group was headed for a trekking trip into the northern end of the Himalayas where no Americans had been before (A coming blog!) and Samarkand was a side trip. My wife, Ann, and I opted for the market this day. ClicK! Click! The big 6×4.5 Pentax was not a subtle camera to photograph people candidly!
SPLAT! Another grape hit me and this time I heard a rumble….Ru#s*s#ki! What were they saying? Were we in trouble? Pretty quick there were more grapes and louder, clearer voices, and faces that were not hiding their dislike, but now I could understand what they were saying: Russki!, Russki!, Russki!, ……..It dawned!…They thought I was an ethnic Russian photographing them! And they were PISSED!
What to do? I looked at Ann and she looked a me and we both started shouting, “Nyet, Amerikanski, Amerikanski, Amerikanski!”
Suddenly there was complete silence! Then everyone started jabbering in disbelief to their nearest neighbor,”Amerikanski, Amerikanski and pointing at us! That was the end of our photography: suddenly bottles of pop, watermelons and, yes grapes, were being handed to us! And we heard, as we heard frequently during the the trip, with thumbs up and thumbs down: “America good”, “Russia bad”. It actually became rather embarrassing considering some of the dictators we have played footsie with, but from the viewpoint of minorities in the Soviet Union, we looked like saints by comparison. And oh, how they loved the ship loads of greasy SPAM we sent them during World War II ! You have to be starving in a really cold climate to appreciate greasy spam….and they had been! And they had not forgotten! And I’ll never forget that day: They loved us and I still love them!