A Quick Trip to Uzbekistan

Trains may be the final place where people still seem to enjoy talking with strangers, especially when seated with a group of amicable folks for breakfast or dinner, cruising through the gaps, mountains, and wide open spaces of backcountry U.S.A. or Canada.

“For my family [cousins, aunts, and uncles] who live in rural areas, my coming to America was the same as if I had gone to Venus or Mars.”

To be honest, I was returning from nine days on the road and assisting my mother after surgery, so I was looking forward to getting on the train and crashing—figuratively, of course—just zoning out and going to sleep.

So when a porter showed a woman to the seat next to me and promised to find her another seat in a bit, I thought, Good. I don’t want a seatmate. I want to stretch out. Sleep.

She was a beautiful young woman attractively dressed, with skin slightly darker than mine, dark hair, and wearing stylish five-inch wedge heels. I forget who spoke first, but I soon forgot my exhaustion as this young student opened up, almost like I was her mother. Indeed as her parents’ only child who had come to the U.S. for her college education, she was from, as she said, “one of the former Soviet Union republics, the ‘stans’ of central Asia: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan.” She seemed hungry for retrospection.

She had just finished her freshman year, majoring in math at St. Mary’s College on the campus of Notre Dame University in South Bend. We both boarded Amtrak’s “Capitol Limited” train at nearby Elkhart, Indiana. She was heading to New York City for the summer to live with friends and was excited to explore the wonders of the big city.

Her English was excellent and punctuated with typical college colloquialisms. “But my English was terrible just nine months ago,” she confided as I recalled my own year studying abroad when I felt like the dumbest student in my classes. We laughed and she was clearly enjoying our easy conversation about her experiences, so I kept listening.

She said learning about our different educational system was very valuable. In her country you can only apply once a year, to one college, and if you don’t get in, you are out of luck until the next year—unless you apply to multiple universities in other countries, such as Russia (her second language) or the U.S. (her third language). So she applied to six colleges in the U.S., was accepted by three, and chose the school which gave her the most financial aid. “For my family [cousins, aunts, and uncles] who live in rural areas [her own parents live in a large city], my coming to America was the same as if I had gone to Venus or Mars.” It was that distant, that foreign to their dreams or desires for themselves.

At one point in the year she had a serious medical need and quickly racked up a $10,000 medical bill and “no treatment, not one pill was even given.” Fortunately she had campus health insurance so the cost was not an issue. “Spending $10,000 on doctors is not imaginable in my country,” she smiled, still amazed. “And they didn’t actually treat me. It was all appointments and tests ordered by the physicians.”

We talked about campus life, including the alcohol on college campuses and the prevalent underage drinking here. Even though her country has no drinking age, she wanted to obey American laws and did not drink. She seemed puzzled by her friends who didn’t seem to realize the danger they invited, becoming inebriated at parties. She also couldn’t understand how her American friends could speak ill of their parents. “How can kids judge their parents when it is their parents who gave them life? If it weren’t for their parents, they wouldn’t be here.” At one point she mentioned thanking God, but I didn’t pry further, although terribly curious.

As we finally settled down to sleep, discussing the chilly train, she laughingly said she had used an inaccurate website to pack before coming to the U.S. The website she consulted said the weather in Indiana was tropical and rainy, so she had prepared by bringing raincoat, umbrella, boots—and not nearly enough warm clothing to handle a normal Indiana, let alone this past winter, which was the coldest, longest, snowiest winter for about 30 years according to some.

During the night (the porter never did move her), I noticed she had pulled up a female’s Muslim type headgear, which, covering her head, surely offered more warmth. Before she got off the train in Pittsburgh to change trains for New York City, she removed the headgear.

Where else but a train would I have had this quick trip to another side of the world through a long conversation with a young woman from central Asia? As she went on her way and I bid her good luck, I found myself saying a prayer for safekeeping.

What’s your favorite travel story of meeting a complete stranger and getting acquainted? I’d love to hear more. Send your story to or post them on the Facebook page for “Another Way Newspaper Column.”

Posted 6/12/2014 7:00:00 AM

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