I guess I should start by explaining what Uzbek is. It’s the language of Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic in central Asia that was part of the Silk Road that once wound through Asia. It’s an area of the world where there are still people living the traditional nomadic lifestyle involving yurts, riding horseback, and drinking fermented mares’ milk (a delicacy I just couldn’t bring myself to try).
So how does this relate to antidepressants? That’s where I have a story to tell. In 2015, I spent 5 weeks backpacking in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. During that time, I was hauling around a veritable pharmacy: a sufficient supply of my 5 different psych meds, plus my standard round-up of just-in-case backpacking meds to cover motion sickness, travel’s diarrhea, and other such fun adventures.
I landed in Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan, around 10pm. I was exhausted from the long flight, and just wanted to fall into bed somewhere. I thought it seemed a bit odd that the customs declaration form asked for a list of any medications I was carrying, but I dutifully listed them all. The rather ghetto-seeming airport wasn’t inspiring much confidence, but I hoped that as is often the case my Canadian passport would get me waved right through.
When my turn in line came, I handed my declaration form to the customs officer. He stared confusedly at my mammoth list of medications. Then he wanted to see them, although I’m not sure why, as that didn’t seem to make things any easier. He appeared to have no idea what to do, so he consulted some of his colleagues. I told them that they were for depression, but they didn’t seem to have any idea what I was talking about. There was much talking, looking confused, and phone calls until finally they waved me along.
I thought that would be the end of it; if only I could be so lucky. I hadn’t booked a hostel room because it hadn’t struck me as necessary; I was an experienced traveller and had never had problems before. Tashkent is no great tourist mecca, so that might have worked out okay, except there was some sort of international sporting competition going on in town and everything was booked up solid.
By midnight, I had given up on Tashkent and instead turned up at the Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan border, thinking I might have better luck across the border. Except that meant another customs declaration form, and much more confusion over my bag of meds. The customs officers tried to be nice, but spoke very minimal English. They wanted to know what the meds were for, and I didn’t think antidepressant would be in their lexicon, so I kept pointing at my head. Maybe that made them more confused, or maybe it made me look more like a psych patient – who knows. When they saw I’d just arrived in Uzbekistan that night, they decided they needed to call customs staff at the airport. Talk about the blind leading the blinder. Eventually I think they just took pity on me and let me go.
Travelling with psychiatric medications in non-Western countries can be a bit dicey, even aside from the issue of border crossings. Replacement meds can be hard to come by if meds get stolen, and that’s something I always try to remain cognizant of. That saved my butt on one occasion in India when I was sleeping in an upper bunk on an overnight train. My backpack was shoved underneath the lower bunk, and during the night someone stole everything in the backpack other than clothing. If my bag of meds hadn’t been tucked in beside me on the bunk, they would’ve been gone.
I haven’t really been well enough to travel in the last couple of years, but hopefully I’ll get back into it even with the depression. I still may be able to pull off my 40 by 40 goal: 40 countries visited by age 40. And next time I go somewhere off the English-language track, I might look up the local word for antidepressant ahead of time… just in case.
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