According to Lonely Planet, Ayna is the #1 restaurant in Ashgabat. The guide describes mouth-watering caviars, never frozen fish--wild-caught in the Caspian Sea, and some other edible sea creatures. They had me at "Lonely."
We are the first patrons to arrive. As soon as we step in, someone turns the lights on. The Christmas lights, that is, the Merry Christmas lights, adorning the windows of the restaurant. Three surprises welcome us to Ayna: First, one of the waitresses is ironing on one of the tables; second, our server is a boy, and third, the menu is in Russian and nobody at the restaurant speaks English. I try to remember those handy bits of the underwater culture I learned from watching Finding Nemo, but out of respect for my husband, I daren't speak Whale.
We do nothing in Russian, a little bit in English and a lot of body language, which doesn't help when I try to order caviar. I mean, what kind of body language does one use to do "caviar?" I order beluga, which the waiter clarifies, it won't be whole, no tail and no head, just a little bit. What can I say? "spasiba," I don't want a whole beluga.
Something is going on. Something big. Two women in high heels, hair done, make up on,
nice dresses, seem to be rehearsing an event of sorts; they dance without music and go through the motions of sitting people around the adjacent tables, set and ready to accommodate 30 people.
What's going on? we ask our young waiter.
Happy birthday, he says. In one hour.
We eat slowly, prolonging our time there so that we can crash a Turkmen happy birthday party.
A few minutes later, the singer arrives. She tests the sound system and rehearses a few songs with her killer voice. Then the photographer and the video man arrive. Things are heating up. Every time a guest arrives, video man and photographer rush to the door, adopt positions and record everybody’s entrance, like the paparazzi do.
The birthday girl does all the work. She is the one coordinating everything: she runs after photographer, singer, video man, waitresses; she greets everyone upon arrival; she sits her guests at their appointed places and she poses for the cameras with every single one of her guests. People bring flowers, presents, and a few guests slip money into her hands as they kiss by the door.
We’ve got an unobstructed view and we are missing nothing.
Each table has a litre of water, a litre of Sprite and a bottle of Vodka.
The music starts, but like any other party, the guests are shy and nobody dances, just the birthday girl and her girlfriend who hasn't stopped posing for the cameras.
I'm finishing my beluga when the DJ plays a song that makes everyone get up and dance. I stop chewing. I don't want to miss a thing. How could anyone not look at these women dance. They move like nobody's watching, especially the older women who get up, wave their arms up
in the air, hands undulating to the left, to the right, a little step forward, a little step backward. Oh, the grace.
The young women have a lot to learn from their elders. They've been doing this for a long time and dance with confidence, there is wisdom in each little kick, some sort of legacy in each hand pirouette. They dance with wrinkles and with gray hair; they dance with weak knees and tough hands; with happy memories and labor pains. They dance with their wombs and their wrists and their cuticles.
The birthday girl grabs the microphone and calls the first group of five. She stands with them on the stage and teary-eyed, stares at them as they say nice things to her (I think), then she says "spasiba", hugs them, kisses them, and everybody dances some more. Later on, she calls the next group of five and the scene repeats itself.
For dessert we eat fried ice-cream, a very Turkmen dish, consisting of a scoop of chocolate ice cream covered in a layer of fried pastry. Just genius!
We extend our stay so much that the manager starts sending free stuff to our table: a pot of tea first, and then a tray of fresh fruits which seems to be the locals’ favorite way to accompany vodka.
While the waiter brings us the bill, more dancing goes on.
It doesn't take me long to get into the music. It sounds Arab, but it also sounds Russian and I have to admit, a little bit Latin. I'm tapping my feet to the music when one of the older women invites me to join them on the dance floor. I consider her invitation. I really do want to dance with them, but then I remember when I was doing research among the Yupik Eskimos of Alaska. A group of women dancers invited me to dance with them. I was supposed to sit on the floor and dance on my knees the way they do, but instead, I got up and did some hip shaking a la Colombiana thinking that I was nailing it. Needless to say, the Eskimo women were not impressed with my dancing skills and never invited me to dance again. I was welcome to watch, but never to part take.
She waves me in. She beckons me again and I look at their hips, their still hips, hips that don't shake and don't rattle. Mine are already doing the Latin thing under the table cloth, they are already having musical tremors.
"Spasiba," I say to the kind woman and shake my head. What I really want to tell her is
that my African ancestors live within me. That I'm Colombian; therefore, Andean, Spanish and African....and that I'd love to join them but my hips? Those have a mind of their own.