Family Magazine

Living in Dushanbe: Melon Piles

By Sherwoods
It's watermelon season here in Tajikistan.  It's actually been watermelon season here since the beginning of June.  Thanks to multiple growing zones and proximity to Afghanistan, the seasonal availability of fruits is actually much longer than in the US.  Apricots started showing up at the end of May and are still around because the northern areas are in the middle of their apricot crop.  Which is nice, when you can only ever get apricots once a year.
I think there's something about the former Soviet Union and watermelons.  Brandon likes to tell tales from his mission of watermelon piles taller than him and as long as a semi appearing overnight in the neighborhood.  Every evening on the way home he and his companion would buy a watermelon, stash it in their refrigerator, and then pull it out and eat the entire thing the next night.  Then they would put in the new watermelon and repeat every night until the pile was finally exhausted, probably from everyone in the neighborhood doing the exact same thing.  I imagine (and I can only imagine because I've never actually done a full day's hard labor) having a juicy sweet watermelon on a hot summer night tasted pretty good after working hard all day.
One week our friendly neighborhood fruit stand in Baku was suddenly taken over by watermelons.  One third of the space was filled with watermelons on the floor, watermelons on the shelves, and watermelons in the doorway, piled up to the ceiling.  The children were in absolute awe, never having seen so many watermelons in one place their entire short lives.  They still talk about it today.  "Do you remember, Mom, when there were so many watermelons at the fruit stand in Baku?!?! There were so many watermelons!!!  They reached all of the way to the ceiling!!!  That was CRAZY!!"  One of their formative childhood memories will be of entire wall of green-striped watermelons, all concealing a sweet red heart, threatening to crush them at the slightest provocation.
Tajikistan has the same love of watermelons.  It gets pretty hot here in the summer, reaching the hundreds for four- or five-day stretches frequently, and most people don't have air conditioning.  Many houses have tapchans in their courtyards where everyone sleeps in the summer to escape their stifling houses, and in the evening everyone is outside the apartment blocks watching the children play and chatting with neighbors.  On our way home from swimming last week, Brandon and I saw three boys sliding downhill in the irrigation ditch, the last one incongruently holding an umbrella.  I can always count on the local water canal being filled with at least ten boys on hot days, and the river is another popular place to cool down.  Everyone does what they can to survive the heat.
Watermelons are sold anywhere and everywhere here.  The grocery store's minuscule produce area is taken over by watermelons and a local cantaloupe relative we've nicknamed yellow melons (very creative, I know).  My favorite roadside produce market has two competing piles of watermelons, one for each stand.  The backup produce stand has watermelons lined up in front of the green-painted boards, spilling out of a half-opened door.  An empty storefront on my route to the embassy filled up with watermelons as soon as the season started, with a pile of three or four standing proudly out on the road so that everyone can know where to get their daily melon.  I often wonder if they ever get run over.  Watermelons are an essential for long, hot summers.
Watermelons are also sold wherever someone can unload their trunk, or truck, or car-top rack and sell twenty or thirty melons to any passers by who want them.  Some piles are semi-permanent; Brandon and I like to stop by the man in front of the mosque as we head down to the amusement park.  Sometimes he cools his watermelons in the blocked-up irrigation ditch.  Occasionally he's not there, but most days he sits by the road and waits for people to pay him ten or fifteen somoni for his melons.
Some piles are spontaneous and ephemeral.  One night a pile of a least a hundred appeared just down the street from us on an unused street corner.  A few days later they were gone, with only straw and trampled grass as testimony.  I had hoped that the pile would be replenished - it's always handy to have a watermelon pile within walking distance - but the watermelons have never returned.
I can always tell where a new pile has been created when I'm out driving.  Without any warning, the traffic will slow and narrow down to one lane.  I've gotten spoiled driving here; I can drive the five miles from our house to the embassy and encounter as many stoplights, so any slow-up is frustrating and completely unexpected.  As I creep past the blockage, wondering what car-crash had happened and checking the clock to see if it's time for Friday prayers to end, I look around for the culprit and then the pile of green-striped melons come into view.  Oh, just another new watermelon pile.  It will be gone in a few days, replaced with another one somewhere else.
I think watermelon piles will become an enduring memory of long, hot, dusty summers in Tajikistan.  One day when I'm in America and I have to drive to grocery store, park my car, walk into a store, pick up a melon, pay for it at a checkout counter, walk back to my car, and continue on my way just to get a watermelon, I'll miss my neighborhood piles.  I'll miss the traffic slow-down from Tajiks double- and triple-parking so they can get juicy sweet watermelons to enjoy in the cool of the evening.  And every time I see a watermelon, I'll think of hot, dusty, brown summertime Dushanbe.  And sweet, cool, quiet evenings.

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