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26 August 2011 / leggypeggy

My name is Peggy—or maybe it isn’t

My nemesis—the lovely Svetlana in the third row, third column.

Getting through passport control in Turkmenistan was a little sticky for me. We arrived at the port, Turkmenbashi, about noon from Baku, Azerbaijan. We’d spent 16 hours on a huge rust bucket plying across 300-plus kilometres of Caspian Sea. We hung around on the boat for another three hours before being called inside to go through immigration. We were lucky to be summoned ahead of a group of about 30 people on a London to Mongolia charity rally.

Even though my name was at the bottom of the list, I was the first one to be motioned through. Within seconds it was obvious that ‘oops, we have a problem’ and the problem was me. As an aside, I was surprised to realise that the Turkmen word for problem is ‘problem’.

The two fellows who were checking my passport—these days it gets scanned on equipment that seems to be donated by the US Government and, for good measure, you step back from the window and they take your picture—started whispering anxiously, glancing at me, then my passport, then my photo and then the computer.

They said my name over and over again, and stared intently at me and then at the computer. They muttered ‘Hackensack’ a lot too and finally asked where it was. ‘It’s where I was born—in New Jersey.’ My mother would have been mortified. She wanted dad to drive her across the bridge so I would be born in New York City. Her words were, ‘I don’t want a child of mine growing up saying I was born in Hackensack, New Jersey’ and there I was doing exactly that in far off Turkmenistan. Sorry mum.

But back to the story. At last,  the passport officials placed the first of many worried calls. The Turkmen guide who met us at the ferry—guides are compulsory here—is a retired school teacher and she trained her sensitive ears on their conversation to establish that they were pretty sure I was a Russian Svetlana Sultandowna who was wanted for some crime she had committed in Turkmenistan in 2009.

Before I go any further, let me tell you that if Svetlana is ever stupid enough to arrive in Turkmenistan through that border, she deserves to be caught. But I digress again.

I stood at the window through their many phone calls to some bosses in Ashgabat, the capital, trying to figure out what to do next. Although I assumed they would be delighted to have possibly captured one of their ‘most wanted’, it was clear that they were not thrilled to have ‘Svetlana’ on their hands. Our guide later told me they were terrified because they would be punished if they wrongly accused me.

As the dithering dragged on, I suggested they put me aside and process my travelling companions, but ‘no, no’ they would deal with me first. After about 30 minutes of phone calls and dismayed head scratching—and a decision that head office would send a better photo of Svetlana so they could digitally analyse my photo against hers—I was motioned to sit on the floor in the corner. About 18 of my group were processed before word came through that I was not Svetlana after all. What a relief.

Of course, I was not told any of this directly. All the detail was gleaned by our eavesdropping guide. As they handed over my stamped passport, the officials told the guide to apologise for the delay and asked her to tell me that they held me up because I ‘was so beautiful’. Oh, pleeze!

So I joined the others in the waiting room—where we all ended up waiting almost another 24 hours. Just outside, in the breezeway, is a poster of 20 people ‘of interest’ to Turkmenistan officials. Almost smack in the middle is a black and white photo of Svetlana, with the number of her special crime (no idea what it is). The only things we have in common are our height and messy blonde hair. Her hair is below shoulder length. She is heavily made-up. She has dark lipstick on her pouty lips, and looks sort of like Bernadette Peters. To top it off, she is 21 years younger than me!

I wanted to take a close-up of Svetlana the troublemaker, but they are very touchy about photographs in Turkmenistan and especially at a border crossing, so I had to settle for a fuzzy one taken surreptitiously from a distance with a telephoto lens. Surely you can see the strong resemblance!

And if this sounds like I wrote this just after it happened, I did, but I had to wait until I left Turkmenistan to post it. At first I thought I was playing it safe so I didn’t get me or the group into strife. But then I discovered that in this country, you can only access email accounts, so no Facebook, no blogs, no reference sites.

In the next few days, I’ll post an explanation of why we spent an extra 24 hours in the waiting room.

10 Comments

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  1. Louise M Oliver / Aug 26 2011 10:11 pm

    Oh Peggy! That would be really funny if it wasn’t so dreadful. Perhaps it will be funny by the time you get home. I especially liked your description of the ‘real’ Svetlana and I’ve always thought you’re beautiful. I’m guessing though that you didn’t want to be that sort of beautiful.

    Like

  2. leggypeggy / Aug 29 2011 2:47 pm

    It was extremely funny and remains so. I tell everyone to just call me Sweat and we all wonder whether the real Svet has caused trouble in any of the other countries we will visit.

    Like

  3. Sy S. NYC / Aug 30 2011 8:50 am

    Hello Leggy Peggy,

    I think this is very scary to be investigated by police/ border crossing officials…. in some countries they can take you away, no lawyers, put you in jail and then hope you go free… and not be kept for a month or so. I know an a American in which this happened in Kandahar, Afghanistan (1970).
    Aside #1- when leaving Kubul and going through Kyber Pass into Pakistan be alert. Around 1970 at least once a week bandits would stop the buses and rob people (like the wild, wild west with rifles).
    Hopefully, this does not occur any longer?
    Aside#2- At the Iranian, Afghanistan border crossing and at the customs area in Iran (if I recall) they made all the people from our bus leave the courtyard. The customs people were investigation a man and woman (I think from Pakistan) (and in the NYTimes 1970 they were reporting of people being shot on the spot for smuggling…).

    Sy

    Like

  4. Sy S. NYC / Aug 30 2011 9:03 am

    Hummm, just looked at your travel map… and you are not going to Afghanistan!

    Sy

    Like

  5. Brian Lageose / Jun 29 2016 8:49 am

    Okay, this one just might be my favorite story that you’ve done. I was grinning the entire way through… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jun 29 2016 11:59 am

      I still think it’s funny. Svetland often comes up in conversation at home. I wonder if she was ever caught, or if I’m really her?

      Liked by 1 person

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