After hours of bumping the extensive Turkish Airlines in-flight music catalog, I arrive in Istanbul Airport where I head to the bathroom for a haircut, to keep busy during my 3-hour layover. Some of the men in the bathroom look at me funny, but others take my abandonment of the status quo as evidence they can do whatever they want. In the breast-high sink, I see people clip toenails, wash feet, and drink. When I emerge, I feel my hair and beard are much neater, as I have hardly trimmed either since my return to Connecticut, and when I meet long-haired James at this terminal he compliments my handiwork. We board.
Another several hours of seatback stereo songs, ranging from Nena to The Moody Blues to Kendrick Lamar, drops me in the hot, dark Central Asian desert a few minutes after 2 am. James applied for his visa in London, so we part ways at the visa-on-arrival desk and I wait for over an hour as my fellow underprepared fools chat back and forth, trying to find people who are on the same tour as they.
Only one person on that line is with my tour, a Filipino- American woman from Los Angeles who implores me to wait for her. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call her Nena, after the German pop-star and cornerstone of the Turkish Airlines music library most reknowned for her antiwar protest song “99 Luftballons.” I agree to wait for Nena, as I did not book a hotel room in Ashgabat that night and frankly had no where else to go. Besides, she waits in line only three people behind me, which promises to only grow my waiting time by 15 or so minutes. I sit comfortably in the airport seating, and watch as Nena approaches the friendly-but-firm visa agent, clad in a uniform suitable for a captain or admiral in some small seafaring nation’s navy. I am fiddling with my phone, which gets no reception, as Turkmenistan is well-known for limiting communication to the outside world. In a few minutes, Nena comes up to me, and informs me her visa is not valid, and that the man will not issue a new one.
As I used to do when I worked as a passport agent, I interrogate the tiny Filipina, who has a son older than I, for about five minutes until I understood her situation completely. I have never appeared at some foreign airport, let alone in a country often said to be as enigmatic and secretive as North Korea, without the necessary documents to enter. In fact, I occasionally have nightmares to this effect. Nena seems quite calm. Buying another ticket to the next stop, somewhere in Uzbekistan, seems like a reasonable option that she entertains readily. To enter Turkmenistan, one must have a valid visa, or else a letter of invitation that shows the guest is allowed into the country. Nena had purchased her visa ahead of time, but has since renewed her passport, making the old visa (linked to the old passport) invalid. To make matters worse, her passport number on the letter of invitation still reads as the defunct one, and so the visa issuer cannot confirm if she is the same person printed on the letter which specifies name, passport number, and nationality.
Nena and I return to the visa-on-arrival desk, now vacated. Nena previously expressed that she struggled to understand the Russian-speaking guard’s advice, and she looked surprised when I happily volunteered as not only her passport specialist but her translator as well. The man simply explained that he would consult his boss, who could come by in forty-five minutes and hopefully assist. Despite her regular pleas for me to go to the hotel and get some sleep, I told her I would not leave her side. My kindness originated partially from the fact that I am a kind person, but I mostly wished to stay with her because the vacated airport seats were likely more comfortable than sleeping in the hotel lobby, where a receptionist would surely be eyeing me through every toss and turn.
I did not get the chance to sleep, however, because Nena and my introductions, chats about travel, and generic babble that always emerges between two countrymen who meet in a foreign land, last until the boss enters through the booth’s back door. Neither of us notice, but after about half an hour, a small woman in a hijaab sits down at the payment booth, placed directly to the right of the visa booth, and reaches through the hole in the glass to rap a few times on the drywall, beckoning us forward. She takes a quick glance at Nena’s passport, letter of invitation, and invalid visa, and agrees to issue a new visa for $99, the same price I was charged. My new sidekick agrees, relieved she will not be missing the first of five ‘Stans.
A too-cheery-for-3:30-a.m. immigration control officer, clearly bored and realizing we are the only arrivals in the whole terminal, eagerly asks me where I am from, where I am going, and where I learned Russian, as we exchange pleasantries in Russo-English. His only job is to give us stamps, but the hold up bother neither me nor Nena, who also has nowhere to go but the hotel lobby. On the other end of immigration and customs, an ethnically Russian Turkmen name Slavik, who seems he is about to fall asleep standing up, holds up the sign for the tour company. We greet each other, and he leads us outside to his pristine white SUV outside. The truck is raised so high over the ground that Nena has trouble climbing inside.
Even in the wee small hours of the morning, Ashgabat is hot and getting hotter. The forecast predicts a high of 109 degrees Fahrenheit in the early afternoon, so I am grateful Slavik’s air conditioning functions properly. Thankfully, I exchanged a few dollars at the airport, and Nena and I each tip our nearly-unconscious driver a few Manats before stepping into the hotel lobby.
On the couch, a Ukrainian woman in her thirties, named Svitlana, browses her cell phone until we introduce ourselves and sit down in the adjacent armchairs. Just as I expected, the receptionist stares from across the lobby, tolerating our existence but almost certainly wishing we weren’t cramping the style of what was otherwise a loose and casual nightshift crew. Nearly five hours remain until meeting the rest of our group near the couches, so I walked into the hotel’s 24-hour restaurant after inviting my two new friends for a coffee. Nena sleeps, but Svitlana stays awake with me until the restaurant begins serving their breakfast buffet. 'Lana teaches me Russian and asks what I liked most about my trip to non-Chernobyl Ukraine. When I tel her I loved the people and food of Ukraine, she lights up, tired of hearing how her nation’s biggest disaster has become internationally recognized as the only valid reason to visit her country. After gallons of all-you-can-drink coffee, we are getting along fine.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.