October 13, 2003 - Washington Post: A Nose for Experience with Uzbekistan RPCV Tom Bissell

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Uzbekistan: Special Report: Uzbekistan RPCV and Author Tom Bissell: Tom Bissell: Archived Stories: October 13, 2003 - Washington Post: A Nose for Experience with Uzbekistan RPCV Tom Bissell

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A Nose for Experience with Uzbekistan RPCV Tom Bissell

A Nose for Experience with Uzbekistan RPCV Tom Bissell

A Nose for Experience

Tom Bissell was also a Peace Corps volunteer, but not quite of the star-pupil variety that Sarah Erdman represents. In the mid-1990s, Bissell washed out after seven months at his teacher's post in Uzbekistan, wracked by homesickness and dysentery. Thankfully for us, in Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia (Pantheon, $24.95), he returned to the scene of his ignominy, a more mature traveler, a semi-seasoned journalist and a wickedly funny writer. His purpose was to investigate the ecological calamity of the Aral Sea for Harper's magazine, but he used the visit to plumb the depths of his flameout and generally have another go at Uzbekistan. The result is a hilarious and insightful misadventure in the post-Soviet bureaucratic badlands.

In the company of Rustam, his lanky, slang-spouting Sancho Panza of an interpreter, Bissell stepped over the rope lines of conventional tomb-and-temple tourism into the turmoil of real-life Uzbekistan. Perhaps in penance for his earlier failure to properly embrace the local scene, he evinced a deep thirst for experience (he even waxes defensive in praise of European body odor). That, and his having blithely agreed to deliver secret money and messages to some Uzbek dissidents, fills this episodic book with Kafkaesque settings and fearsome characters. The police militsya were chilling even as they bumbled for bribes. The bear-hugging local boss, already a stock-figure in postcommunist literature, was roguishly corrupt. The tenement backdrops boasted all the charm of unflushed toilets.

Bissell is a born raconteur, but he is also a prodigious scholar, uncoiling the tangled history, ancient and modern, of this crossroads society in bright, taut cords. He is brash enough, as a writer under 30, to take on such an august Balkanologist as Robert Kaplan (for alleged failures of both fact and reason). And he is such an ambidextrous writer that his mini-treatise on Anglo-Russian statecraft is as readable as the dish on his college sweetheart.

Bissell may have been a flop as a Peace Corps volunteer. (The toughest job he ever flubbed?) But his failure has still provided some benefit to humanity -- at least to the part of humanity that enjoys a great read.

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Story Source: Washington Post

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Uzbekistan; Writing - Uzbekistan



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