A story from a boat that never leaves
The morning started promising and I had a good feeling about us catching the ferry. Nevertheless, some doubts remained deep inside me and I only would fully believe that we had made it, when we would finally be on the boat hearing its horns blowing to a ‘Goodbye’ to the sights of Aktau getting smaller and smaller on the horizon.
Together with a Japanese bicyclist we were up early this morning and were biking towards the seaport. It was already the fourth time for us we made this ride, however the first together with the Japanese and for the temperature still to be warm instead of breeding hot. The day before we had finally achieved, what we have been waiting for so long: Tickets for the ferry to Baku. A thing that seems trivial turned out to be a bureaucratic nightmare, which forced us to wait for 10 days# until we were allowed buying tickets. And we were lucky with that – our Japanese fellow was already waiting a week before we even had arrived in the town and still he did not have his ticket yet.
For some reason we were lucky, or was it because we could speak, although badly, but at least some Russian, and were thus enabled to argue with the clerks at the different offices at the seaport? I have no idea – but it seems we had caught a good moment the day before, when we had tried for the third time obtaining tickets. Initially of course, we were sent away, again with the lousy excuse that there was no ship today and we as passengers without motorized vehicle should always refer to the travel agency in town for buying tickets. Sure, we had been at this dubious travel agency and they had promised us tickets as soon as a ferry would go – however, they relied on the information when the boats leave, which they get from the seaport, but apparently only two or three times a month somebody there feels obliged to call the travel agency and let them know, although there is a boat going almost every day. A tricky situation thus for travelers: There is a ferry going with plenty of space, but the place where one is supposed to buy tickets does not know about it and those who do know say, they do not sell tickets.
So our plan was to be stubborn. We were rejected with our matter – however we kept on and the first little success after tiring the lady clerk at the cash counter was that she asked us to wait for the boss. One hour waiting, another hour waiting and eventually the boss showed up. He is a friendly guy and even speaks some English. So we tried again with him and again got refused: “Go to the travel agency in town”. I could not hear this anymore and lied downright to him: “Well, the travel agency is not selling tickets and has told us to come here!”. He seemed to get confused and I continued, telling him that we had to get out of Aktau, because our Kazakh visa were close to expire and that we were getting bored of the town. Finally, also he gets tired of our mantra and decided that he has to consult with the cash lady if it was ok to sell us tickets. Interestingly, it was her who had to ask him for permission in the first place. So he takes his phone and calls the other office, although only five meters away. She picks up her phone and because we are in the middle of the two we can see him speaking behind the glass wall and turning around see her in her counter listening to him. They argue for two minutes and finally he nods to us with a dismissive gesture and points out to the cash lady again. From now it is just paperwork. She fills out some stuff, we get ready our money and passports and all is said: Two ferry tickets to Baku for the next day are now in our hands!
I had promised the Japanese that, as soon as we had figured out the ferry tickets, I would tell him. We then decided that when we would go to the ferry the next day he should join us and together we would sort out tickets for him as well. Now that we knew it was possible, I thought while riding to the seaport in the morning, how happy and relieved from his desperateness he soon would be, when we were fixing tickets for him. It felt wonderful that we would be able to help him and free him of yet another week waiting in Aktau. How difficult it must be for a shy Japanese to deal with this Central Asian world of inefficient bureaucracy and the fact that one is fully at the mercy of a booking clerk, his courtesy or distrust as he pleases. Likely the opposite of a well organized society, as I imagine the Japanese, where everybody functions precisely like a small cog in a machine. To make matters worse he did not speak a word of Russian, but worst of all he would give up and turn away if a clerk told him it was impossible. But that is exactly what people are doing here, saying ‘No’, at least in the first place.
We had arrived at the seaport at eight o’clock and although we were told to come at this time the whole thing was sleepy and no counters were open. I even started doubting whether there actually was a ferry today. And again we waited. After two hours the counters opened and this time we would speak for the Japanese. The same lady who had issued us tickets yesterday was at the cash counter, so I did not expect too many difficulties. However, I was also not too much surprised, when she came up with a ‘No’ and referred to the travel agency. Eventually, she got bored and we agreed again on waiting for the boss. After four hours – still our ferry was not ready – the guy came lingering into the office. Today, he was less friendly to us. Maybe we were testing his patience too much. However, it was an ‘absolutely impossible’ all the way through. I did not want to annoy him, because once he was annoyed I feared our last chance gone. In a very politely tone I questioned, why it was impossible today for the Japanese, what was possible for us yesterday. The answer striking simple and revealing in its bold stupidity: “Because, he is on the travel agency’s waiting list for tickets and we do not want to steal their customers.” Of course it was just another lame excuse, because we were also on that waiting list and it did not matter yesterday. But these things do not follow any logic or reason – it’s plain arbitrariness. However, his argument opened up for another maneuver and I was happy, I had an idea ready instantly. I told him I would call the travel agency and would have his name taken off the list – problem solved and he can buy a ticket. I took my phone and rang the agency. Unfortunately, the only English speaking staff member was not available so the result of that glorious miscommunication – the only thing they understood was ‘ferry’, ‘name’ and ‘list’ – was that they did not remove the Japanese’s name from the list, but put yet another name on the list. Anyway, that did not matter for now. I went back to our man in charge and told him that the Japanese’s name was no longer on the list, hoping he would not crosscheck. Of course, he did not bother checking and I felt close to victory. But instead he came up with another obstacle, saying he just had asked his supervisor and it was now impossible to give tickets to individuals who have once been on the travel agency’s waiting list. Bummer! He had said it in a way that I immediately knew there was no more room for negotiations today and we had to give up here.
I was angry, but much more I felt sorry for our companion who had to return to this ugly place condemned to wait. We could board our ferry three hours later and it was already dark when we were leaving the port, this time by boat. We were seeing the road to the seaport which we have been taking many times, but now from the other side. I pitied the Japanese and resented myself for not having been able to do more for him.
Writing this, I am sitting on the ferry to Baku, a vessel built in 1985 in Rostock, East Germany. The style of the facilities are familiar to me and I can recognize light-switches, boards and door handles that were often identical in all Eastern Germany. The crew and the only other passenger are extremely nice and welcoming to us. And there is certainly room for a Japanese bicyclist. My thoughts go to him now.