The Watermelon Man
Republic of Tajikistan
September 5, 2019
In a previous letter I declared that “The Tajiks are the most kind and generous people I have ever met.” I stand by my description. But I neglected to provide any examples.
In another letter, I asked you to “Remind me to tell you the story about the Watermelon Man.”
So please allow me to explain.
My very first experience in Tajikistan is unique:
As I wait in the Immigration queue at the Dushanbe airport, documents and passport in hand, the immigration officer signals to me to come forward to the head of the line. When I defer to the others ahead of me, he insists. (You don’t argue with someone in a uniform at an airport.)
“How are you feeling tonight?” he asks. It is midnight and after a two hour wait at the connecting airport in China and additional two-hour departure delay, I respond, “I’m exhausted. To tell you the truth, I’m exhausted.” The immigration guy smiles so I smile back. (Normally this type of situation is humorless, but the officer and I make a connection.)
The officer examines my documents and stamps my passport. And then as if to say, “Welcome to my country. I am pleased and proud that you decided to visit us,” he rises from his desk, smiles and shakes my hand!
Akbar, the hotel driver, is waiting for me at the airport. After a mercifully short ride to the hotel, the night staff assigns me to a room on the fourth floor (no lift). The staff carries my luggage and I crash.
At breakfast the next morning, I overhear the manager scolding the night staff, “Why did you put that old man on the fourth floor?” Believe me, I take no umbrage. I am not offended. I am amused. Azam immediately assigns me to a room on the first floor – a spacious room with elegant furnishings.
Azam and I also “connect.” He and his brother Azim find me a responsible driver, Bakhtiyar, for the Pamir journey. They obtain my Pamir travel permit and make copies of my documents for the series of checkpoints I would encounter along the way.
All the staff at the Hello Dushanbe Hotel-Hostel are equally hospitable, helpful and respectful to their mature guest: the young men who serve breakfast, the housekeepers who do my laundry, and the office staff and I are all on a first name basis. (That is if I can remember their exotic Tajik names.)
For my first excursion, Akbar drives me through the Fan Mountains to Iskanderkul - Alexander’s Lake (2195 m or 7201 ft). After an arduous hike down a rocky path to visit the (modest) waterfall, and back again up the trail, we decide to have lunch at the (equally modest) tourist center. Restaurant closed! But after a bit of conversation between Akbar and the cook, she provides a tasty meal. (Did Akbar convince her to provide a bit of sustenance for the “old man”?)
And speaking of sustenance, at the hotel one afternoon, Azam shares a large helping of Plov – the traditional Central Asian meal of chicken with rice and carrots.
In the town of Rushan in the Pamir Mountains, a group of Pamir men invite me to join them as they lounge in the shade of an ice cream stand. The men speak Pamir. I don’t. But somehow we manage to communicate. After a few minutes, a vanilla ice cream cone arrives in my hand, courtesy of the young woman who owns the shop.
In Khorough, after a “misadventure” at a local guesthouse, Bakhtiyar takes me to what he describes as a “five star” hotel, the Pamir Palace Hotel. His description is confirmed by the room rate. It’s late, but rooms are available. So the Night Manager and I have a “discussion.” The rate drops substantially. Everyone is happy.
On the return trip through Khorough, I decide to stay at the “five-star” again. The Night Manager is pleased to see me. We have a brief chat and he asks, “Will you come back to Khorough at some future time?” It would be rude to say that it is unlikely I will return. But I am familiar with the polite and proper response to such a question in this part of the world: “Insha’Allah, I will return next year.” I suppose my accent in Arabic is satisfactory. The Night Manager inquires, “Are you a Musulman?”
At the vey end of my Tajikistan journey I attend the Book Exhibition at the National Library in Dushanbe. I take some photos and chat with the exhibitors. One of them hands me an illustrated volume of Oriental Carpets. “A gift for you,” she explains,
On the sidewalk outside the National Library a group of women display an array of traditional embroidery. I am disappointed because the objects are not for sale. As I walk away from the exhibit, one of the women follows me and hands me a large swatch of embroidery. “A gift for you,” she explains.
So what’s the story about the Watermelon Man?
On the first day of my journey in the Pamir Mountains, Bakhtiyar and I stop at an outdoor stand that displays a huge pile of huge melons. (I have eaten melons before in Central Asia. They are mouthwateringly juicy, extraordinarily sweet and delicious beyond words.)
Bakhtiyar and I meet the owner – a large middle-aged man who eagerly welcomes us. I notice he has gold teeth - a common sight in Central Asia. Men and women wear gold teeth, I assume as a dental necessity, but also as a part of their dress – a type of jewelry.
My Watermelon Man has a full set of gold teeth in his upper palate. I jokingly point to his teeth and comment, “You must be a rich man!” My guy loves my observation and smiles for the camera.
Bakhtiyar and I choose three melons for our journey. I take out my wallet to pay. The Watermelon Man refuses to accept any money. I attempt to pay several times. He refuses. “A gift for you.”
(Later in our journey we frequently cut one melon in half and give it to the restaurant staff. They will cheerfully serve it to us for dessert.)
On the final day of our journey, Bakhtiyar and I decide to return to the Watermelon Man. Alas, he is not at his stand. But we meet his son. We relate our first visit here and choose two melons. He accepts my payment.
But, as we walk back to our car, the Son of Watermelon Man follows us and gives us a third melon. “A gift for you.”
Many fellow travelers and I have confirmed and agreed upon this common experience:
In poor countries, folks are kind and generous.
Of all the now independent countries of the former Soviet Union, Tajikistan is the poorest.
In Tajikistan, folks are kind and generous.