Last year at this time, I was hanging out in Irkutsk, Russia. My Thanksgiving dinner consisted of chicken tacos from a fast food wannabe Tex-Mex joint across the street from where I was staying – my attempt at eating something sort of “American” in honor of the holiday.
Last Thanksgiving, I wrote about being thankful for so many of the people who made my trip possible, from the high school teacher and college professor who inspired my interest in the former Soviet Union to the friends who adopted my cat, Leo. This year, I want to write about the thing the thing for which I am most thankful when I look back at my entire thirteen months on the road:
The kindness of strangers.
We hear all the time in the United States that the world is a dangerous, scary place. Indeed, one of the most frequent questions I have heard since returning from my trip has been “weren’t you scared?”
No, I wasn’t.
I may have been a little nervous at times, but I was never scared. Okay, maybe I was scared when I was hiking outside of Tashkent on a slippery, narrow trail with my knee throbbing, terrified that it might give out and I might go tumbling down the side of the mountain at any minute.
But I was never scared of the people. I never felt like I was in danger.
I kept my guard up in the beginning, but I soon realized that I needed to learn to trust the people I met along the way. Time and time again, I needed to rely on the kindness of strangers to get me through. So this Thanksgiving, I want to thank all of those strangers who went above and beyond to help me throughout my journey – from people whose names I never knew or soon forgot to those who I am now happy to call my friends.
Thank you to Irina at the Apple Hostel in St. Petersburg, who went way beyond the call of duty to help me get my bank card back after a Sverbank ATM machine ate it.
Thank you to Karina, who found me on Twitter and showed me around Moscow.
Thank you to the elderly women in Vladivostok, who took me by the arm and walked me to the right bus stop when I was completely lost shortly after arriving in town.
Thank you to Vladimir, who gave me a ride back to Irkutsk from Taltsy in the snow for free, while chatting with me in Russian the whole way.
Thank you to the guy with whom I shared my train compartment from Yekaterinburg to Kazan, who not only pointed me to the right bus in Kazan but also rode the bus with me, making sure I got out at the right stop.
A huge thank you to Yuliya, who I met at a hostel in Vilnius for all of 5 minutes. She not only met me at the bus station when I arrived in Minsk, but helped me check in to my hotel, took me out to lunch and, over the next 4 days, showed me around the city, introduced me to her friends and took me on a long day trip outside of town to visit the Khatyn Memorial, Mir and Nyasvizh .
Thank you to Galyna, who found me on Twitter and showed me around Kiev.
Thank you to the Georgian guys on my train from Batumi to Tbilisi, who took me for tea when we arrived in Tbilisi, bought my subway ticket and carried my bags all the way to the subway for me.
An enormous thank you to everyone I met in Yerevan while I volunteered – all initially strangers who soon became friends – especially Marianna, Jenya , Tania, Arpine, Asqanaz, Sylvia, Celine, Anita, Alen, Patrick, Jordan, Shirak, Lilian, Allegra, Natalie, Michelle, Maria and my host parents, Stella and Martin!
Thank you to Kevin, who found me on Twitter and introduced me by email to his friend Linda who lives in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Thank you to Linda, who let me stay in her amazing apartment in Baku for nearly a week while I tried to chase down visa to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Thank you to the couple in Baku, who called the Tajikistan embassy and then sent their 8 year old son to take me to the embassy when I was lost.
Thank you to the group of men in Baku, who not only flagged down a taxi for me, but paid the taxi driver to take me to the Uzbekistan embassy when I was lost.
Thank you to the UCell store employee in Bukhara. I visited the store to buy a SIM card but was told I had to go to the headquarters office. This guy drove me to the store, just a few blocks away. Then, when they wouldn’t accept my passport, he provided his passport to get the SIM card for me. Finally, when I told him about my struggles to find an inexpensive taxi to the Turkmenistan border, he arranged for a friend to drive me for $20 less than anyone else was quoting.
Thank you to the truck driver, who gave me a huge slice of watermelon as I walked across no-man’s land in between the Uzbek and Turkmen borders.
Thank you to Derrick, who found me on Twitter, showed me around Nukus and helped me exchange my train ticket to Kazakhstan.
Thank you to Blanca, for inviting me to join her on the pilgrimage to Beket Ata that her CouchSurfing host, Andrey, arranged. And thank you to everyone we met during the pilgrimage who were so gracious and welcoming to us – the only foreigners and non-Muslims in the entire group.
Thank you to the woman on my train from Zhabagly to Taraz, who made her husband drive me to my hotel after we arrived in Taraz (telling him my Russian was really bad so they needed to help me – I’m sure she didn’t realize I understood that!).
There are likely many others I have forgotten – many small acts of kindness that probably made me smile at the time, but have since disappeared from my memory. And while no one else articulated this feeling, I am guessing they would all agree with the sentiment expressed by the UCell store employee in Bukhara:
“I have been to other countries and people have helped me. So when people visit my country, I think I should help them. They are my guests.”