I knew there was something amiss from the moment we stepped out of the hotel. Tom waved a few cars down some of which slowed down, not quite coming to a full stop as they drove by us, then took off. I've seen a few taxis but they are not necessary here. Each Turkmen has an annual allowance of free gas and if they ever go over their yearly gas allocation just a few pennies buy them more. Gas, just like staple food, is subsidized by the government which allows its citizens to offer rides to one another. Therefore all you have to do if you need a taxi is wave down any car. The standard fare is three manats (the local currency equivalent to one US dollar) from and to anywhere in the city. Not a bad deal.
Eventually a young Turkmen picked us up. He spoke very good English and was delighted to have someone to practice it with. He worked for the Ministry of Culture and asked me if I knew of any theater troop in the USA interested in performing during the next international theater week to be held in May. He and my husband exchanged email addresses and Tom paid him 10 manats for a long ride from the hotel to the Tolkuchka bazaar (which translates as the Push and Shove Market). A journey of about 30 miles. I wholeheartedly disagree with overpaying the drivers; Tom goes by what his heart tells him and by how much we'd pay back in Florida for an equivalent ride. My philosophy is that we should pay what the locals pay even if we feel their services are worth more.
As soon as we stepped out of the car and started to walk towards the massive market (the biggest market in the Middle East) we passed a group of older Turkmen women. They were sitting on the steps of the first building, wearing their traditional hair gear, long dresses and clogs that seem a few sizes too small. It was freezing cold and the ground was covered in sludge from melting snow. I saw them from a distance talking to each other, smiling, puffs of steam coming out of their mouths. As Tom and I approached them, they changed their demeanor. They stopped talking to each other, turned their eyes on me (not Tom) and they shouted things in my direction, arms flailing up in the air. Something about me ticked them off. I was covered from head to toe with layers of clothes to keep my Colombian body from freezing, so it wasn't my attire that upset them. Other than holding hands with my white husband, I could not understand what I was doing that they found so offensive. They kept repeating a word which was easy for me to memorize. It sounded like "bruja" the word in Spanish for "witch." They waved their arms, jerked their heads forward, and hurled what seemed to be insults at me with such determination that Tom and I quickly started to walk away from them into a different building.
When I got back to the hotel I took it upon myself to figure out what these women had shouted at me. As it turned out, the word that came out of their mouths enough times for me to memorize was shlooha, which much to my amusement means "whore" in Russian. OK, I've been called many things in my life, but never a whore (not to my face anyway) and never in Russian. Then again, maybe I’m being paranoid as the women in the market were most likely speaking in Turkmen not Russian and I can’t find any Turkmen dictionary online. All I know is that there is something that ticks them off: my skin color (too dark, too foreign), my crazy hair (too long, too curly, too exposed), my holding hands (probably the only couple holding hands in public), my holding hands with a white man...I'll find out.