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Dagestan: The Land of Mountains

Editors note:  After a party, young Dagestani men visit a hot springs in the middle of no-where which has a flammable fountain of water. Located in the North Caucasus, bordering the Caspian Sea and a Republic of Russia, Dagestan is home to almost 3 million mostly muslim people. Ethnically very diverse, it is made up of several dozen ethnic groups and is Russia’s most heterogeneous republic, where no ethnicity forms a majority. From 2000 until late 2012 Dagestan was subject to a violent Islamic separatist movement that spilled over from neighbouring Chechnya but has now been largely controlled by the Russian Government. Now relatively peaceful Dagestan (which means Land of Mountains) remains one of Russia’s untouched treasures* receiving few visitors. Due to its relative isolation, this beautiful mountainous region has maintained its traditional cultures that have been lost in many other parts of Russia.

* untouched treasures – translation – it’s a fucking godforsaken war zone amongst Russians, Chechnyans and Isil terrorists that makes Iraq look like a walk in the park.

Gregor returns with an incendiary tale 

Shamalat was a stocky little bastard. Barely five foot tall, he packed enough strength to lift a three-seater couch over his shoulder and heave it across a living room.

I know this because I saw him do it. And what made it even more special was the knowledge that he was probably even more stoned than I was when he did it – and I was on the cusp of pissing my pants because I was greening out so badly.

I knew, of course, that something was afoot that day. There’s that feeling that you get, regardless of how badly reality has been damaged through ingestion of substances, that something – somewhere – has gone badly wrong. And I was feeling it from the soles of my feet to the fillings that were rattling like craps dice, deep within my teeth.

Something was about to get well and truly fucked up – and, for seven or eight glorious minutes, I thought that it was probably going to be me.

It was well beyond the normal paranoia that accompanied a heavy session on the bucket bong. This was a visceral, atavistic style of slow-creeping panic. Even Vaughan, who was entirely unflappable thanks to his horrific upbringing and resulting alcoholism, was looking tense.

And when he looked tense, he got this look on his face that said he was trying to evict a grossly enlarged and horribly dry, brick-hard turd.

Think ‘it’s the day after we took all the opiates and now I can’t shit but I really need to and – while we’re discussing this – why the fuck are you in the bathroom while I’m trying to shit?’ … and you’ll get the idea.

Anyway… when Vaughan got nervous, I got nervous. He was our broken little canary in the coalmine. If he took something and it killed him (which happened twice – but both times we managed to punch him in the chest until his heart decided that it wasn’t quite done beating) – that was a good sign for the rest of us that we should probably take whatever it was in half-doses. Just to be safe.

So this particular night began like every other. Barefoot and starving, three of us found ourselves in the living room in Rose Street. Half an ounce of pot sat in a snaplock bag on the coffee table. Next to it sat an eight ball of speed, two casks of white wine and a handful of prescription meds in a small bowl that had been swapped, bargained or purloined from among acquaintances throughout the course of the afternoon.

I fucking loved Tuesdays.

There was no official start to proceedings. No fanfare. It simply began.

Within the hour, it went bad. It always did. The trick to it was to charge through – tough it out, like a concrete-headed boxer whose manager demanded a solid six-round showing so the paycheck looked like it was genuine. No one was expected to win. We just needed to survive.

It was a grim kind of fun. And to turn the boxing analogy through 180 degrees, it was never about hurting anyone else… it was about how much self-inflicted damage we could endure. Three young men, punching themselves repeatedly in the face. It wasn’t a quest for honour. It was a very long run to the edge of an abyss that we believed we understood.

But this night was different. For starters, Sham and Vaughan we both unusually quiet. Normally, they would verbally spar – Vaughan because he thought he was smart, and Sham because he needed to practice his English. Born somewhere in Russia – but Sham called it Dhagastan or some such shit – he sounded like a spy and looked like an adolescent black bear. Short, shaggy-haired and as strong as an angry ox, he is the only guy I’ve ever met that I honestly believed could wrestle a train and emerge victorious.

But he was a friend. Which was a good thing – something we learnt when he’d wrapped a bar stool around a stranger’s head in the pub about a month before.

“He disrespect you – I make him sleep,” Sham said once that violence was complete, flashing a sickening grin, which revealed that dentistry hadn’t quite made its mark in Dagastan.

“I’m pretty sure the word you’re looking for is ‘coma’,” Vaughan helpfully corrected him.

“Ah… Good… Yes,” says Sham. “I make him coma.”

On this particular Tuesday we’re discussing, however, Sham was unusually taciturn. Something was brewing in that horribly ursine brain of his.

There were few rules in the world we inhabited. And the ones that did exist almost exclusively revolved around etiquette – the ‘do’s and don’t’s of drugs’. Over the course of the next 15 minutes, I managed to shatter just about every single one of them.

The first, and perhaps most obvious in hindsight, is that you never – ever – get in the way of an angry Cossack when he’s well into the blackened depths of a profound mental funk. Even a simple ‘You okay there, tiger?’ is likely to end with someone sporting the wrong end of a broken beer bottle in the trachea.

The second is that you should never, ever assume that just because you can hear or see something, that everyone else can hear or see it as well. Which would have been good to remember around about the time that I casually mentioned to Sham that he had set the couch on fire and was somewhere between four and seven minutes away from cooking himself where he sat.

The third – and most telling – is that you should never assume that the people around you have ‘probably had enough, so whatever’s within reach is now fair game’.

Even if the people around you appear to be well and truly ablaze, and hence highly unlikely to want another line or two, on account of what should surely be an urgent desire to ‘stop, drop and roll’ to deal with the flames that are – evidently – consuming them.

But, as everything we were consuming began to kick in, idiocy got the better of me. The rules went out the window.

“Sham…” says I. “Dude… Sham. SHAM!”

From beneath his shaggy black crop of hair came a baleful gaze.

“Hhhwhat?” he uttered, with the word arriving so guttural that it took me a second or two to realize he had answered, and wasn’t merely hocking up the phlegm for which he was (deservedly) quite famous for producing.

“Sham… you okay, dude? You look a little warm…”

“Is fine. Fuck you.”

“You sure? Because it could just be a trick of the light or something, but honestly, dude… I think you might have set yourself on fire…”

“Campfire!” he cried out. “We clap hands. We laugh! We sink sonks and dance!”

“… Sham … for real … you’re sitting in a fire…”

“IS FINE! FUCK YOU!”

Doubt crept into my mind. I could be making this up. Because surely… someone who had managed to light their legs on fire – in polyester track pants, no less – would arguably be a better judge of whether they were actually on fire than me… After all, I was clearly on the other side of the room, well away from the action.

I peered about myopically – the best kind of peering, in my opinion – before my gaze settled on the plate on the coffee table. The one with one last line of something vaguely pink, powdered and of dubious origin.

I looked at Vaughan – who still looked like he was trying to remember something very important.

I looked at Sham – who was, by this stage, clearly on fire.

I looked at the plate. And the drugs on the plate. Then at Vaughan. Then at Sham.

I looked at the plate. And the drugs on the plate. Then at Vaughan. Then at Sham.

I looked at the plate. And the drugs on the plate. Then at Vaughan. Then at Sham.

I took the drugs – kneeling on the floor, I scooped up the $5 note, rolled it into a tight little tube, tested which nostril was most likely to work (the left one…) and before I knew it, the line was gone.

I looked at the plate. And the lack of drugs on the plate. Then at Vaughan. Then at Sham.

Vaughan had vagued out substantially. Sham, on the other hand, had not.

“Was Mine!”

“Dude… Sham… seriously, dude, you’re on fucking fire… are you okay?”

“AM NOT BURNING. THOSE WAS MY DRUG. GIVE THEM BACK.”

If you’ve ever snorted a line of drugs, you’ll know precisely how impossible that request is. If you haven’t ever – then imagine eating a teaspoon of castor sugar, and being asked to spit it back out into a neat little pile – as dry and useful as it was before you put it in your mouth.

If you’ve ever snorted drugs, you’ll also know that – aside from mainlining them into a convenient vein – up your nose is about as rapid a transformation as you can expect between ‘I just took something’ and ‘why aren’t my limbs responding?’.

“GIVE. THEM. BACK.”

“I would if I could but I can’t so they’re gone,” I thought smugly to myself.

Vaughan, to his credit, fucked off at this point. Sham, to my dismay, did not.

[internal monologue time]

‘Tough it out, dude. Tough it out… their gear will wear off soon, and you’ll be fine, as high as nuts and everything will be fine as soon as we put that fucking fire out and how the fuck doesn’t Sham understand that his legs have been on fire for a few minutes now? Something’s not right. Really, really, not right.’

And that’s as far as I got before Vaughan emerged from the next room, wiping vomit from his chin and blinking owlishly through the gloom.

“Sham,” he mumbled. “You’re on fire.”

And it turned out that Sham was, indeed, on fire.

Most of us realised that the usual fug of smoke that hovered in the living room had become unusually thick – and quite extraordinarily pungent.

The scent had a distinct chemical base, combined with marijuana and nicotine, enhanced by subtle top notes of rapidly rendering skin and fat – as if someone had served a dish of ‘slow cooked foam rubber and pork belly on a bed of insanity and rice noodles’ in one of those insufferable pop-up restaurants that people love, even though it means the proprietors could be responsible for an outbreak of dysentery but will never face prosecution because they’ll be in Adelaide before the fourth or fifth victim dies of the squitters.

… I digress.

The living room was filling with smoke. All of us were coughing horribly. Shamalat still hadn’t moved.

Something had to give… and that something was Vaughan.

Summoning all of the grace one could hope to expect from a kangaroo that had just been hit by a truck, Vaughan lurched forward and (as much as I would love to lie, and say ‘in one swift movement’ but it certainly wasn’t the case) grappled with the bong for a very, very long ten seconds before dousing Sham with the fluid it contained.

It made little difference to the flames. It made a lot of difference to Sham.

“The fuck you do?” he bellowed.

Vaughan scampered, as only people called Vaughan can scamper – leaving me alone with a burning Eastern European, and no control over my own limbs. Unable to move, I watched Shamalat discuss his predicament with himself.

“… I am on fire.”

“… This couch is burn me.”

“… The couch must leave”

And it was at that point that Sham stood up, heaved the coffee table aside and lifted one end of the couch to around shoulder-height, before making a run for the front door.

The results were almost inevitable… Sham hit the door like we’ve all hit the floor at various stages of our lives: rapidly, with a loud thud and what seemed like an awful finality.

The collision sent him crashing to the floor. He was left with no avenue of escape – trapped between a front door deadlocked against possible police interference, and a three-seater sofa that was in imminent danger of becoming a suburban Valkyrie farewell to dreams and wishes and drugs.

But Shamalat was not a quitter. Not then, not now, not ever.

Gathering all of his strength, Sham heaved that couch across the room to escape the flames. It landed with a burning ‘whomp’ – shortly followed by Shamalat doing precisely the same.

… The ‘poetic’ ending to this story would have been a Viking-like shout of rage and burning furniture hurtling across the room, before Shamalat absconded smoldering into the night.

Instead, I witnessed Sham hoist that couch to shoulder-height, heave it across the room so that it blocked the front door (and only reasonable external point of exit) before patting out the flames on his legs.

“Fuck fire,” he moaned. “Fuck. Fire.”

The following morning, Sham was nowhere to be found. Our couch was still gently emitting what were surely toxic wisps of smoke, and the living room was even more of a grotesque mess than usual.

I tidied up as best I could – by which I mean I shambled back upstairs to steadfastly ignore the detritus of a night gone bad.

When Sham resurfaced about a week later at the pub, he was walking like a rodeo champion – bow-legged and more ginger than Lucille Ball.

We all said nothing. The last man who crossed him at the Glengarry Castle Hotel went home with a pool cue lodged somewhere unmentionable… and none of us had the balls to deal with that sort of indignity.