Excerpt from Searching for the Aport, Turkish Airlines Skylife Jan 2017

I pick up a large round apple at the Almaty Green Bazaar’s nearest fruit stall and ask Marina, the apple seller: “Is this the Aport?” Her already flushed cheeks turn one shade deeper and match the skin of the apple I’m holding. The buzz from the nearby ‘konina’—horse meat—stall, mixed in with the clamor of kimchi and Korean carrot sellers from two rows over travels the air, drowning out the faint hum of the afternoon market. A melon vendor is competing for my attention with other sellers of the Green Bazaar—the largest fresh produce market spread over several blocks in the center of Almaty—but to no avail. I pause before biting into the Aport. The wonder apple of my childhood has been the symbol of Almaty, along with the snow-capped giants, the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains, for over two centuries. In Soviet times, the Aport was air shipped to the Kremlin for its marvelous qualities: impressive size—some apples have been known to weigh close to a kilo, strong aroma, and crisp, juicy taste with a delicate balance of sweet and sour notes. Will the apple I’m holding now deliver? 

Gennady Lubyantsev doesn’t think so. A retired lieutenant colonel from Almaty, he remembers the Aport of yesteryear. “My mom used to send me care packages consisting of nothing but the Aport. One such apple was so large I would share it with three other people. The apples you buy today are not the same. The Aport is gone.”

The height of the Aport’s glory came at the tail end of the ‘70s. The Aport gardens covered large surfaces of Almaty, then the capital of Kazakh Soviet Republic. Walking anywhere higher than the Al-Farabi street, the main thoroughfare separating the lower city from the foothills, one could stumble upon a garden with tall Aport trees carrying heavy fruits. By the ‘80s, the Aport had become so popular that the agricultural sector decided to expand its production. That decision contributed to the apple’s demise. A fickle tree, the Aport only grows at a certain range. Expansion beyond the indigenous area, coupled with indiscriminate choices of the Aport growers that crossed it with other apple types in search of a bigger yield, led to illnesses and degeneration of the wonder apple. During the tumultuous decades that followed, the new land development on historical garden grounds has almost completely wiped out the Aport apples from Almaty.

 

Excerpt from The Night Is Young, Lonely Planet 2016 Literary Anthology Nov 2016

My guide Mohammed dismounts his camel, takes off his worn leather sandals, and steps on the hot desert sand. The onset of dusk is adding a hint of sorcery to the dunes that loom all around us and I can no longer see the homes of Merzouga village behind the rare Saharan palms. I cling to my camel, Bob Marley, and follow Mohammed into the desert for an overnight stay.

Bob Marley’s flesh is hot against my skin. The sun is still strong and I appreciate the elaborate red cloth turban Mohammed tied on my head a minute ago. Through the narrow slit in the turban, I track Mohammed’s indigo blue tunic, aglow in the ochre dunes, as he guides us deeper into this land. I lose sight of him when we cross a large dune, a sleeping giant, and realize that a camel thread in Mohammed’s hand is the only tie connecting me to another human. I have to believe that the thread is strong enough.

Bob Marley takes careful steps, sinking to his knees but coming back out each time. After a while, the camel and I get into an ancient rhythm, advancing as one through the desert. The quiet dunes surround our small caravan and at times seem to cover us whole. Still we keep going. Mohammed gazes far beyond the shifting horizon and charges ahead as if following an invisible path etched into the dunes.

I catch the last glimpse of the sun before the next slanted dune hides it from view. The air cools down and my camel perks up. The night is quickly falling on the Sahara and Mohammed’s slim silhouette is dissolving into the darkness. I pull on the camel thread to ensure we are still connected. As if he is sensing my fear, Mohammed turns and sends me a bright wide grin. He must be only a kid, eighteen or twenty at most. I realize I don’t know much about him, except that his family lives in a nearby village. By the time I go back to New York, he’ll take ten other people on this nightly trek.

I too will have business to attend to upon my return.