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November 16, 2002

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Bribery works; the question is how to do it. This morning we used our $5 plane tickets for a flight over western Turkmenistan, from Ashgabat to the Caspian coast. The flight went smoothly, worth every dollar, as it carried us over miles of Turkmen desert (a 12 hour journey by rail, one hour by plane) and dumped us in the town of Turkmenbashi, a name which means "father of all Turkmen." Don't be fooled by the town's name or its status as the country's major port, this place is a nowhereville. We found ourselves waiting here for a rusty ferry to carry us across the Caspian. Our situation called for finesse. Fifty people crowded the station, each hoping to board a ferry that carried eleven passengers. Among the waiting list stood fourteen peasant women loaded with cotton bales and covered in colorful, homespun clothing, a band of wily Georgian and Turkish truck drivers, a man dressed in a business suit but conducting unidentified business, some drunken Azeri, and us, two foreigners dressed like backpacker dropouts. We've lost respect for rules; every rule has its price to be broken and the eleven passenger limit was no exception. Yet since a ferry sank last week and four times more people drowned than were supposed to be onboard, the government has cracked down on overcrowding. People milled about the station, trucks straddled the parking lot, laded train cars lay on the tracks, everyone remained quiet about how fifty people could board the next ferry - no one mentioned bribery - everyone agreed only eleven people could go. We were fifteenth in line, behind the fourteen peasant women who had been waiting for the last 24 hours. We made a deal that for $10 we could each take one of their places. We grew uneasy as we watched our fellow would-be passengers mingle with officials - first were the guards that held everyone away from the ticket office, then there were customs officials, immigration officials, and of course, the ferry staff. Who was in charge, who was the bull goose bribery official? We could see deals being made. Low conversations filled the station with mutterings, whispered urgings, and subtle dealings. Our fellow passengers all tried to help and they gave friendly yet contrary advice. The Georgian truck drivers pointed to a fat guard at the ticket desk. They said, "He's the big man, money, money," whilst performing an underhanded counting motion. The businessman pointed towards a customs official. A Turk talked to a pimply young ferry official and beckoned us over. The peasant women smiled. Like old sheep dogs they guarded their place at the door to the ticket office and barked at anyone nearby except us who they befriended and let stand beside them. We waited for four hours and the ticket office never opened. The ferry lay in the harbor. Rumors circulated about when we'd be allowed to board. Ten? Eleven? Mid-night? At eleven PM the ferry disembarked its passengers who had been anxiously waiting as we had been on shore. They walked through our lines and the tension jumped. We expected everyone to rush the ticket office but that didn't happen. The ticket office opened but people already stood inside! The guards had let some Turks and Azeri through the back door and they bought their tickets; in minutes the tickets sold out. We felt defeated yet no one else seemed surprised. Not wanting to wait a few more days for the next ferry, we panicked and went up to the ticket window in a daze. We offered more money, doubling the ticket price, but the ticketers said no, the ferry was full. We went to the guard and offered money - he ignored us. We talked to the customs official about boarding the ferry and signaled with an underhanded money counting motion - he walked away. Other would-be passengers tried to console us; they said the next ferry would come in a few hours (we knew it wouldn't come for another day if at all). We watched the passengers with tickets move through customs. Then our fun began. Other passengers that we knew didn't have tickets also entered customs. We asked them, "Do you have tickets?" They smiled and nodded yes but the customs agents made us leave before we could learn more. Left alone, a man approached us and said we could board for $100 each, everything included. We paid him and shook his hand. He said, "Now you have tickets," yet he didn't give us any tickets; this is the Turkmen way. He left while we waited for another hour until customs agents motioned us to enter. They brought us into a room and asked if we had tickets. Yes, we said. They said it would cost $20 more dollars to be added to the passenger list. We refused to pay more money. They frowned but eventually let us through after searching our bags as a stalling tactic. The immigration officials asked us for money too. They refused to stamp our passports because we wouldn't give them another bribe. We stood outside their office, on the dock, for another two hours. Finally they stamped our passports and we boarded the ferry, the last passengers to enter. Onboard a ferry official brought us to a private cabin. He had tea with us, told us Turkmen customs agents were corrupt (as if we didn't know), and then left us alone with a word to stay out of sight; as stowaways we fell asleep.
Turkmenbashi town, Turkmenistan's major port on the Caspian. If you think your life is boring and can't be worse, come here...
No ferry? Play cards and gamble even if it's illegal (you're probably not supposed to be on the ferry anyway).
Ferry accommodation; pay $10-$20 to a crew member and move in.