Sunday, March 03, 2019

Uzbekistan: Circus Shenanigans

The first rule about the circus: You don’t talk about the circus.

Wait, that’s not it.

My actual first rule of the circus is to never sit on the front row.  To do so exposes oneself to all sorts of audience-participation traps.  Even the second row can be risky.

As Eitan and I were purchasing tickets for the show a day in advance, Rule 1 was on my mind while Eitan zeroed in on the “VIP seats” on the front row.

“Wait,” I interrupted before the sale was final, “if we sit on the front row, won’t the clowns harass us?”

Eitan put the question to the ticket agent, who laughed it off.

“You just have to say no,” she coyly answered.

I had my doubts, but we bought the front-row, VIP tickets – two for us, and two for our friends, Chloe and Rod.

When we arrived the next day, the big top was a hub of activity.  We found our seats and purchased popcorn (full of sugar which Uzbeks seem to prefer), and Chloe and I took a photo with a monkey.  The monkey’s diaper smelled slightly fragrant, but at least she was well behaved.

After the photo, Chloe rounded up some hand wipes so we could demonkify, and then the lights dimmed.  Show time!

The full cast of characters welcomed us to the show, and then everyone scattered, leaving the clown behind.

Clowns are creepy, as everyone knows, so it was unfortunate that this particular clown took a shining to Chloe.

Chloe was flanked by Eitan and Rod, and the clown kept pushing them aside as he pretended to woo her.  He gave her a balloon, which she batted into the crowd behind her.  Frankly, clown, she was just not into you.

Chloe’s disinterest morphed into repulsion when at one point the clown wiped her face with a handkerchief, and... it happened to be wet.

He offered her a plush heart.  He begged for a kiss on the check.  And she rebuffed him time and time again.

The whole bit was entirely overplayed, although whenever the clown would reappear over the next two hours, he would continue in his pursuit.

After the clown, a trainer with four monkeys put on a show, and he was followed by a fit man without a shirt.

The fit man started by doing a handstand on two small blocks of wood he had placed on the floor.  Then from the handstand, he shifted his body into a variety of poses to highlight his strength and control.

He continued with some contortionism, forcing his entire body through a reinforced tennis racket frame, and then he pulled out an old-school circus staple: sword swallowing.

His final trick was to insert the six-inch spinning bit of an electric drill into his nostril.  There was some debate in our group as to whether the sword-swallowing and nose-drilling were the result of physiological manipulation or trickery (I thought the former), but the results were cringe-worthy in either case.

when a finger won't do, you have to bring out the big guns

“This is a great example for the children!” Rod remarked, and his point was valid.  Probably two-thirds of the audience members looked to be twelve years old or younger.

After the fit man wrapped up, some of the circus workers started rounding up people for an audience-participation moment.

One guy beckoned to me from the ring, and I politely waved him off.  He persisted and came over to my seat.  I was still reluctant, but after a moment I relented.  I realize the circus is interactive, and since I was sitting on the front row, I felt a certain sense of obligation to participate.  Trying to be a good sport, I stood up and joined the five other people who had been similarly recruited.

I assumed that I had been selected to participate in some clown skit, but I wasn’t exactly sure.

The ring was empty except for the six of us and a carnie or two.  Then the ringmaster lady (the ringmistress?) came out and set a bottle of champagne in the center of the ring and said a few things in Russian.  I recognized the bottle as a three-dollar specimen of local rubbish bubbly, but still I had no idea what was happening.  People in the audience were clapping, hooting, and having a good laugh about something.

I didn’t have long to ponder the situation, though, before the curtains opened and a monster horse came bounding out.  That stallion was ten feet tall if it was an inch.

As he raced around the circle, I stood in the center with the others, and I was still clueless.  I noticed the ringmistress had a long whip, and I naively thought this was the name of the game:  We would each take a turn whipping the horse.  Oh, if only that had been the case.

The first contestant started, and I finally realized what was actually happening.  We were competing for the bottle of rotgut champagne in a game whereby we had to stand up on the back of the monster horse as it raced around the ring.

This was so wrong for so many reasons, not the least of which included the facts that:

  • I’m afraid of horses.
  • I’m afraid of being in front of a crowd.
  • This was way too physical, and, dare I say, dangerous.

Chloe would later tell me she was able to pinpoint the exact moment when I realized the nature of the “game” that was afoot.  I wasn’t a happy camper, and I’m sure it showed.

The first guy climbed onto the horse, and he only got to his knees before falling.

He was followed by a lady who wasn’t quite able to hoist herself up on the horse.  A carnie gave her a boost, though, and she rode around the ring a few times before crashing out.

Contestant 3 was another woman, but she was carrying a bit more weight than Contestant 2.  She needed two carnies to hoist her up.  She didn’t last long, and her demise made quite an impression on me.  As she fell off the horse, barely one lap around the ring, her shirt lifted up.  The safety belt slowed her descent to the ground, but gravity caught her stomach with a vengeance.  As she was prone in midair, her stomach stretched downward probably a good twelve inches and then, reaching the limits of its elasticity, rebounded and rejoined her abdomen with a shudder.  It all happened in slow motion and reminded me very much of the blobs of wax inside a lava lamp.

As Contestant 3 was exiting, one of the carnies came over to me.

“Are you OK?” he asked me.

I guess he also noticed that I looked miserable.  I was surprised that he spoke English and also by the fact that he realized I didn’t speak Russian.  He could surely sympathize with the fact that I had been in a fog for most of the game.

“Not really,” I responded.

“OK,” he answered, “you’re up!”

Since this incident, several people have asked me why I did it.  Well, once you have committed, even unwittingly, it’s kinda hard to walk away.  To slink off stage left, in front of the jeering crowd, and then go back to my seat on the front row like nothing had happened would have been equally uncomfortable in my opinion as playing the game.  I just wanted to disappear, but as that wasn’t an option, I stepped up to the horse.

A carnie cinched the leather safety belt around my waist and said something in Russian.  Then it was go time.

I grabbed the handholds on the horse’s harness and pulled myself onto the beast.  I had crossed the first hurdle: I had mounted the horse under my own power without any carnies boosting me up.  Once I was on top, the ringmistress started whipping, and the horse started careening around the circle.

I worked my way onto my knees, and after a lap or two, I managed to stand up.  It was a squatty stand-up, like you might expect from someone learning to surf, but it was a stand-up nonetheless.  Just like a middle-aged Toby Tyler!

this is the kneel, not the stand-up :)

“That shouldn’t have worked,” I told myself, and a few meters after I stood up, I tumbled off.  Thanks a lot, inner voice of self-doubt.

Luckily my shirt didn’t open up to reveal a lava-lamp stomach, but that doesn’t mean I came down gracefully.  I was discombobulated as I descended toward the mat, the safety belt uncomfortably squeezing my guts, and when my feet touched the ground, I felt like I should kiss it like a shipwrecked sailor rescued after long weeks at sea.  Instead, I stumbled back to my seat.  Eitan, Chloe, and Rod were highly complimentary of my attempt, but I was just glad it was over.

The next guy who went was a ringer.  He climbed on the horse unassisted, but after a few laps, he fell off.  Conveniently, he was the only person given a second try.  On his second attempt, he managed to stand up, but then his pants split open, apparently without his knowledge.  This gag was another indication that he was a circus employee.  When he finally fell off for a second time, the ringmistress declared him the winner and presented him with the champagne, after which he exited through the employees-only curtain.  I didn’t need the champagne, of course, but it was a pretty low move for the circus to cheat in order to avoid paying out a $3 terrible bottle of booze.

Coincidentally, Contestant 6 never got a turn.  I guess we ran out of time.

As I told others of my experience over the coming days, a few people replied nonchalantly, “That’s the Russian circus for you.”

That hasn’t been my experience at all, though.  I’m a big fan of the circus, and I’ve gone to dozens of shows in several countries.  I’ve been to the Russian circus in Russia, and I’ve seen Russian circuses in other countries, including Uzbekistan.  In none of these shows have I ever seen them involve an audience member in such a physical stunt.

In any case, the horse game was followed by a strongman.  His act consisted predominantly of carrying around several kettlebells at once (topping out at 5, I think), and his grand finale was getting run over by an SUV.  After he was mowed over, he laid on the ground moaning and writhing for a minute before triumphantly jumping up.

merry-go-round compliments of the strongman

“I think he was genuinely hurt,” Chloe remarked.

It seemed like showmanship to me.

The strongman was the last act before intermission.  As we left the tent for some fresh air, the workers set up the photo ops in the ring once more.  Eager circus-goers could take a pic with performing monkeys, bears, horses, and dogs, or with the strongman himself.

After twenty minutes or so, everyone shuffled back to their seats, excited for the second half of the show.  The excitement faded, though, due to a technical delay.  In preparation for dangerous animals, the workers started erecting fencing around the ring, and it was not a speedy process.  Curiously (and alarmingly) a strong smell of gas also filled the tent around this time.  I eyed the exits in case something should happen to explode, but an escape wasn’t necessary.  The smell passed after a few minutes.

Twenty minutes later, the cage was ready and three lions were released into the ring.  The lions, two females and one male, were quite young, and based on my extensive knowledge of lions garnered from a visit to Lion Park in Johannesburg, I’d guess they were 2 or 3 months old.  While all wild animals can be dangerous and unpredictable, these cubs didn’t really inspire fear.  Quite the opposite, I had the urge to scruff their furry heads.

For their part, the ringmistress and her male counterpart cracked their whips, compelling the cubs to lazily get up and walk across planks.  All the while, the tamers slipped meat snacks to the cubs to keep them happy.  Then for the big finish, one of the cubs jumped through a flaming hoop.

Then the workers materialized and took down the protective fencing.  Luckily, disassembling the structure went much faster than assembling it had.

After the lions left, the damn clown returned, and he was on the hunt for audience members.  He started with Chloe, and when she refused, he went down the line asking Rod, Eitan, and then me.  He spent a little time playfully trying to bribe Rod to participate offering Uzbek soum, Russian rubles, and U.S. dollars, and he hardly talked to Eitan at all.  By the time he got to me, however, it was no more Mr. Nice Guy.  He grabbed my arm and started pulling me toward the ring, quite aggressively.  I held tight to my chair.

“Just stand up!” he muttered angrily under his breath.

“Wow!” I thought, “more English.”  I hear it so rarely in Uzbekistan.

Despite the English, I wasn’t going with him.  No, sir!  I had already played along once, and that turned out to be a doozey.  Anyway, once was enough.  There were hundreds of people in the arena, and I should do two skits?  Was I on staff now?

I guess he was drawn to the weird foreigners on the front row, but all around the tent, Uzbeks were jumping up and down, hoping he’d select them to participate.  Eventually, he released my hand and did just that.

He picked a young woman, a man, and then for his last pick, he chose – wait for it – lava-lamp woman.  She was more than happy to participate, but what was with this clown and double-tapping the same people?  This would be the last audience-participation moment, and another thing that struck me was that not a single child had been called to participate during the entire show.  This was unusual.

In the final skit, the clown conducted his three participants in a pretend band.  The young woman was assigned to play air violin; the guy, air guitar; and lava-lamp lady pretended to do vocals and shook her bosom.  I was quite happy with my decision not to join them.

The show wrapped up with dancing bears and a couple of acrobats, and then we spilled out of the tent into the refreshing night air.

Later that evening I reflected on the day.  I had survived an interesting experience; I had a photo with a monkey, and one more souvenir was coming into focus – a throbbing broken rib.  It must have happened when the safety belt squished my abdomen.  I had to laugh about it, though.  My track record with ribs here in Uzbekistan hasn’t been good.

If you want to run off and join the circus, I recommend doing it before you turn 40.  As for me, I’ll be keeping my day job.