The prospect of being stranded and overstaying your visa in a weird police state and facing huge fines or even jail time is… sobering. That’s exactly what we were facing at 3 am at the Ashgabat airport. Travel can be stressful, and arguments can happen even on otherwise very nice trips. I’d say most arguments I can recall revolved around delays with food, drink, or a restroom. Or getting lost. Or some combination therein. Thankfully though, when a stressful situation demands focus and cooperation, we’ve been able to navigate things pretty well thus far, and this was no exception. On this trip, we had the added help of our friend Greg. We’ve known Greg a long time and he has traveled with us many times, and we all work together really well when situations demand it. So here’s what happened…It shouldn’t be a surprise that even after all the immense hassle of acquiring a visa to get into Turkmenistan, that visa is completely inflexible and is good ONLY for the days that you are documented and accounted for on a tour. So our visa was expiring exactly on our departure day. We arrived at the airport two hours early, as usual with no bags to check. I expected to see a long line and pandemonium at our check-in counter. We had booked one-way tickets back to Dubai with the discount carrier “FlyDubai”. There are very few airlines and flights that service Turkmenistan, even though they have an absolutely massive, state of the art airport shaped like a giant hawk. The demand just isn’t there. But FlyDubai seemed to have regularly scheduled flights there, so that’s how we arranged our itinerary. Our tickets were booked months before (Greg booked separately), and none of us had heard anything further. Martha and I flew to Oman at the beginning of this trip as a same-day round trip using FlyDubai and everything went perfectly. So, I didn’t have any reason to be immediately concerned when nobody was at the FlyDubai counter.
Our flight was on the huge display screens, one of only a couple of outgoing flights for that entire day. Our check-in counter was lit up and had our flight displayed on it above the counter. A local lady showed up that was supposed to be on our flight and started asking around. More time passed. We entered into the two-hour window, and nobody showed up. An attendant from another airline tried calling them, and nobody answered. Greg and I used our Turkmenistan cellphones to call their international customer service number. It took some time, and some mixed answers, but we eventually figured out that the flight had been “rescheduled” for the next day. This was a huge problem.
No other flights were going to Dubai. A couple of “Turkmenistan Airlines” flights were departing throughout the day, one of them to Abu Dhabi at 6 pm. That would be very, very risky, even if everything was perfectly on time. But the Turkmenistan Airlines ticket counter looked like a refugee camp, full of forlorn faces and onlookers as a few people yelled in Turkmen at the one lady serving them behind thick plexiglass. There was literally only one other option: a single Turkish Airways flight departing at 7 am to Istanbul. We reloaded some data onto our state-run cell provider SIMs and researched our path home before the ticket counter opened. We were the second ones in line. The whine of the dot-matrix printer spitting out our ticket vouchers was the sound of our escape. We already knew the most reasonable routings from Istanbul back home that day, and the best ones took us there via Rome. With a long stopover. After all of this, that was the way to end the trip.
While there are certainly hordes of tourists in Rome, the place didn’t strike me as “touristy” in the typical sense. No amount of tourists visiting can detract from the richness of the history in that city. I must admit though, one image got sort of burned into my mind from our brief visit there. While waiting to snag a clear pic of Trevi Fountain, an elderly Australian couple was nearby attempting to take a selfie together. The wife had an ancient Android phone of some sort inside of a worn leather case and they were both awkwardly trying to figure out how to hold it so that they could get a picture together with the fountain in view. Something about watching them just really hit me after coming off of a visit to more obscure locales. It’s easy to lose track of the “why” in travel if you don’t stop to reflect on things. For many places we visit, enjoying the sight of something new and exotic for the first time carries with it an understanding that it is also likely the last time you will see it. There is only so much time. So, I don’t know, while I’m thinking about which focal length I need to get a pic of the whole fountain, it just really hit me how special of a moment this looked to be for that couple. You have to make the best of the time abroad, as it might be a long time before you return. You might not ever. It was nice to get this quick little sample of Rome, but it strongly reinforced a need to return there sooner rather than later.