They are Turkmen women. They are middle aged and they are big. I see them as we wait at Istanbul International Airport on our flight to Ashgabat. A burly guard stops a group of them as they arrive in the waiting room carrying several plastic bags full of cigarettes, vodka, Bacardi Rum and an assortment of Duty Free goods. The guard gestures and shouts at them in either Turkish or Turkmen, I don’t know. He seems to be berating them for bringing too many duty-free bags or for not having the bags sealed (the bags are so full, half their merchandise sticks out) or for not paying taxes. Whatever is going on, he is in charge and it appears clear to me that these women will not be allowed to move an inch forward until they go back and do whatever it is he is telling them to do. Or so I thought. The guard shouts and points the women back towards the duty-free area; the women shout at him louder and point ahead, toward the waiting room. The guard shouts back and the women gang up on him. Approximately ten women with about five plastic bags each surround the guard, gesturing, waving their arms in the air, moving forward, not quite disregarding him but letting him know they are going into the waiting room whether he likes it or not. The guard favors talking over shouting. The guard smiles grudgingly. The guard moves out of their way. That is until the next group of women approaches him, then the whole scene repeats itself. These women are not pushovers. I can't stop smiling.
They are older women and they all seem to know each other. I look around at the amount of bags on the floor and wonder about the regulations the Turkish airline has regarding unchecked luggage. If the flight is full, there won't be room on the plane for all of this. Thirty minutes before we board, the orderly walks around shouting again. I have no idea what he's saying and nobody around me speaks English. This time a few of the passengers go away and come back a few minutes later armed with rolls of yellow tape which I quickly learn is Turkish Duct tape. They use it to wrap their bags into compact yellow balls. The noise is unbearable. Imagine one hundred bags being wrapped simultaneously. They make handles with the tape and everyone rushes to the sliding door, carrying heaps of duct-taped carry-ons. They rush. They run. They push and shove each other to get on the plane. I get the idea and run too. I saw the amount of baggage and don’t want to have to stow my backpack in a compartment too far away from me.
Inside the plane is mayhem. The idea is to stow one’s bags, close the compartment and guard it, so nobody else uses it. But this proves impossible because when one compartment is full and closed, someone comes, opens it, throws someone else’s belongings on the aisle and stows his own things instead. It’s comical and frightening. The flight attendants walk by the bags, over suitcases, kick out of their way a few loose items. I’m terribly jet-lagged but amused nonetheless. But my smile starts fading away when one of these large women decides to rest her behind on my shoulder. She rubs it and wriggles it and I’m no longer amused. I’m getting a bit uncomfortable and hot and upset. Then more screams and a scuffle. That’s when the fight breaks. The owner of that behind in my shoulder is fighting another woman over space in the compartment. They push and shove each other and when there isn’t seem to be a clear winner, they reach for each other's head scarf, then the hair, then one slaps the other. It would have gotten worse but the men separate them and referee the match.
We fly in reasonable peace for 4.5 hours until the pilot announces that we are descending. Then, things heat up again. The passengers start opening the compartments, claiming their belongings, coming in and out of the restrooms. We haven’t even touched down. Welcome to Turkmenistan.