By Mark Fodor
Turkmenistan was the first country I visited while backpacking through the former Soviet Union in the summer of 1997. While on the train from Kyzyl Arvat to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, I communicated as best I could with a Turkmen woman and an older retired Russian man, Valodia. The woman was traveling through, so she “handed me over” to the man, to take care of me next.
Valodia asked where I would spend the night, but as usual I had no plans. He explained I couldn’t stay at his place as he didn’t live alone, so took me to his best friend’s place. His best friend and wife, both in their sixties, lived in a small two-room apartment. Without hesitation, they invited us both to spend the night. Despite no running water and scarce electricity, the older couple set the table with freshly prepared salads, borscht, and vodka.
I mastered page-flipping of a Hungarian-Russian-Hungarian dictionary, and had a little too much to eat and drink. The other guest and I were offered the couple’s bedroom and their two beds, they were to sleep on the couch in the living room. They insisted, there was no way to refuse.
The next day Valodia helped me find a map of Turkmenistan, and showed me around town. Everywhere we went, he insisted on paying our bus fare. He brought me to a friend’s home to show me how Turkmens live, and to a beautiful hilly oasis outside town. By nightfall we returned to his best friends’ place. During another bountiful dinner, the subject of old age pensions came up. I was stunned to hear they received only about 25 dollars a month.
The next day, my hosts took me to a birthday party with eight or nine people. Though I was a stranger from a foreign land, they never made me feel unwanted. Quite the contrary, I was completely spoiled.
Before leaving I wanted to give a token of appreciation to my hosts, something to help them during the current hard times. As I started to take out my money, the wife gave me an offended look. I realized that the right thing to do was to accept what I’d been given, and just say thank you. They smiled and wished me the best for the rest of my journeys.
Every time I’ve traveled, I’ve been overwhelmed by kindness. So often we hear stories which tell us to expect mistreatment from a particular ethnic, cultural or religious group. But I have experienced in real life, over and over, that this doesn’t happen. The people I have encountered have shown me that overwhelming kindness and goodwill exist at the core of every culture and ethnic group.
I’ll never forget my time in Ashgabat, where Valodia and his friends were such shining examples of the incredible generosity people everywhere give a stranger visiting their land. It was a privilege to get to know them.