Wal-Mart on Acid

Nukus, Uzbekistan

Disaster has befallen Bugs Meany: A dozen miles outside of arid Nukus, a Dayton, Ohio–size city that’s declined since communism’s fall, the team’s van starts growling, then dies.

“Guess that’s the price you pay for making your car fly,” says one of the two Jacobs on Team Bugs Meany. A few days ago, they took a sandy hill too fast and sailed through the air, crashing down on their van’s nose.

We tow the car to a mechanic. While awaiting the diagnosis, I head to Nukus’s central market. It’s a mazelike labyrinth chockablock with vendors, selling everything from knives and pans to socks embroidered with pot leaves to severed cow legs. It’s like Wal-Mart on acid.

There’s little rhyme or reason to the market’s layout. Old women in brightly colored dresses sell fermented horse milk out of old Coke bottles near butchers cleaning tripe. Instead of going bonkers trying to source particular foods, I allow chance to guide my meal choices.

I chomp cold cellophane noodles mixed with pickled carrots, served in a plastic bag. From a woman with a well-lined face I try a pastry filled with onions and lamb; it releases enough juices to sully my last clean shirt.

For dessert, I buy both a fistful of candy peanuts and an ice cream cone. Total tally for the day’s indulgences? A dollar fifty. I’m not in any rush for my friends’ car to get fixed.

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