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Published: April 7th 2019
Getting to Turkmenistan is not easy if one lives in the US. Nor is it guaranteed anyone will get a visa, but luckily, after several days of worrying, my passport arrived back, complete with the required visa. It took two full days to get to Turkmenistan, but I am glad I came. Flying from Boston to the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul only took nine and a half hours, but there I had a layover of almost six hours, a lengthy amount of time to have to spend in any airport. But to backtrack a bit, Bill drove me the two hours from our home to Portland, Maine, where we had a sumptuous and sustaining lunch together before heading off to the Concord Trailways bus station where one can take a bus directly to any terminal at Logan International Airport. While we were standing in line waiting for me to board the bus, the woman directly behind us asked if I was going on the "Marco Polo, the Silk Road" tour with Vantage. She had seen my Vantage luggage tag, so took a chance and asked. Yes! How astonishing! What serendipity! So now we each had someone to be with, together on this long journey. What extraordinarily good luck to meet another traveller from Maine on this trip to the far away Stan countries!
But she was travelling business class on TurkishAir, and I was, as usual, in cattle car, so I thought that I'd be alone most of the time after all. However, she was allowed one guest in the airport lounges and invited me to accompany her. So we spent a long, luxurious time eating and talking and getting to know each other in one of Boston's lounges before our first flight Monday evening. She was in row two and I was in row eight, but when we landed in Istanbul there she was kindly waiting for me. We explored Ataturk Airport for awhile, munching on samples of Turkish Delight candies as we meandered through, and then we went to one of their lounges to eat and drink wine and continue to get to know each other a bit. The hours never dragged; I'm certain it would have felt very different if I had been alone all that time, no food, no wine, no easy companionship.
When we walked to our gate was when the fun started. There was a Turkmenistan guide to help our group (whom we had not yet met) along as no one in charge there apparently spoke English. We thought we had gotten into the right lines as the airline had marked, but there was no organization that could be seen at this gate. Business class typically boards first, but the number of people pushing and shoving their way through, saying they were business class but were not, was alarming to see. I was second in line in our marked row, but we saw crowds of people pushing ahead just because they thought they could. And they did. There must have been six young airline personnel trying to handle this unruly crowd, but no one seemed to be in charge; no one could control this crowd. When the man ahead of me in line angrily told them that all these people couldn't possibly all be in business class they just looked at him and smiled and shrugged their shoulders. Finally a young woman closed the rope on their tumultuous lane and told them to wait until business class had boarded. That mass of passengers continued pushing ahead and yelled back at her; it was not quite pure chaos, but close. But the rope was finally respected, the lane for business class passengers proceded instead, and then our rope was released and we were ushered in. I did not care to look back to check on the mob. That was the strangest (and noisiest) airplane boarding I have ever experienced. Is this what people in Turkmenistan were like?
Because of the lack of organization and the unruly passengers we were very late in taking off; instead of arriving in Ashgabat at 3:15AM we did not alight until 4:30AM instead. And then it was necessary to process through immigration, customs, and something else; by the time we reached our most excellent and beautiful hotel it was 6AM on Wednesday morning. Our group was exhausted and seemed somewhat shell-shocked, so our tour director, Anait, said we could sleep until 11AM, breakfast would be held until noon, and we'd start our program not until 1PM. It was totally unreal trying to sleep during morning hours, but since we still felt on our US time zones we were operating in a fantasy time world anyway at that point. So we slept away much of our first morning in Turkmenistan.
"Breakfast" was good, but when I saw a banana that had been placed on one person's plate I asked the very kind person in charge where the other bananas could be found. She apologized profusely, and told us it had been a special request, but that she'd try to get bananas for us for tomorrow's breakfast. The next morning, Thursday now, one banana was graciously presented to each of us, a very expensive gift of food in this part of the world. Bananas are tropical fruits of course, their cost so high that people living in Turkmenistan rarely eat them, and yet here they were being presented with a smile to each one of us in our group, a rare treat, a treasure, an extravagance to welcome American visitors from so very far away. Knowing its cost, driven by the desire to welcome and please us, and the enormous kindness of Turkmenistan people, I felt honored to be presented with a banana. Travel can make us humble, and can teach us many admirable things. After this short visit I have an enormous appreciation for Turkmenistan and its smiling, welcoming, kind and generous people.
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