(Photo: Franci Neely)
Franci Neely has found friends on the island of Bolama off the mainland of Guinea-Bissau, and she's stood where the sand dunes meet the sea in southern Morocco. Her days have been filled with meaningful conversations and adventure, and she's taken countless snapshots along the way, documenting every detail like a passport of globally curated poetry. However, even the best-laid plans of the most accomplished wanderers can go awry. To that end, Neely says she'll never forget her uneasy experience while attempting to exit Turkmenistan.
It started out as another intriguing odyssey.
"They have some amazing archeological wonders," Neely recalls. "I had a lovely guide; the people were warm and welcoming.
Neely says she meandered extensively through Turkmenistan with her gracious guide, admiring its many archaeological wonders. Turkmenistan is 70% desert and according to gadventures.com, remains one of the least visited countries on the planet. Its capital city, Ashgabat, earned a Guinness World Record for having the highest density of marble buildings in the world. The country also offers archaeological wonders like the dinosaur plateau on the western slopes of the Koytendag mountain range, where paleontologists believe tracks were made by long-extinct creatures like Tyrannosaurus rex. There are ruins with Roman and Asian influences to peruse and the Fire Fortresses of Yangykala - colored canyons where the rippling terrain mimics hearth flames - are popular hiking destinations. Turkmenistan's open-air bazaars are another draw offering a bounty of local spices, textiles, and carpets.
An Unexpected Turn in Turkmenistan
Neely says she was impressed by the rich history of Turkmenistan's archeological wonders. Despite it being mostly desert now, the country was home to a colossal sea 30 million years ago. However, by the end of her stay, she admits she was ready to head off on another excursion when she, unfortunately, hit a speed bump.
"I had cleared the first layer of immigration," Neely says. "Then I had to go through a second [layer] and that officer stopped me because it turns out that my visa had expired the day before."
Although Neely says she had time left on her visa, an error was made when the visa office in the United States recorded the date incorrectly.
And while the English-speaking immigration officer deemed the matter a grave problem, he did offer a solution. "'You have two options,'" Neely says the officer told her. "'You can either pay $440 or you can be banned from Turkmenistan for life.' I said, 'OK, I'll be banned from Turkmenistan for life.' Well, this was the wrong answer. They wanted the money." Neely admits she didn't mind the consequence of being banned from Turkmenistan since she'd spent a good amount of time there.
"They took my passport and they were gone. I was in a room with not one chair in it," Franci Neels remembers. With a nonworking cellphone, no one to converse with in English, and an unfriendly immigration officer, Neely says she kept her composure and maintained a positive mindset.
"All I could think is I am going to miss that flight to Kazakhstan," Neely says. "Well, finally the man came back with my passport, after what seemed like an endless amount of time. And he said, 'Good news, we've just banned you from Turkmenistan for three years.' I got to leave the country, I made my Kazakhstan flight, but I don't think I'm ever going to be back in Turkmenistan."
It was undoubtedly Neely's most stressful travel moment, but she says she found it more frustrating than frightening. "There are many infuriating things that happen when you're traveling, even in the United States," she points out.
Franci Neely's Love for Travel Is Infinite
However, Neely says the incident was seemingly a one-off and that she'd never let one unpleasant travel hiccup deter her mission to visit every country in the world. She already has a mammoth amount of global mileage in her arsenal of passport stamps and she continues to add more as the months go by. She says she has a genuine passion for exploring foreign lands and the priceless human connections she's fostered along the way are some of her most cherished memories of a life well traveled. Having an open mind has also served her well. She says all countries and cultures should be celebrated for their individuality and uniqueness - and she makes a point to shop for goods from local artisans and eat regional cuisine to get a fully immersive experience. "Be someone with an open mind about where you're going," she says.
While traveling, she says she prefers the role of student, rather than teacher. Americans traveling abroad could have richer experiences if they adopted a similar attitude, she notes. "I'm trying to communicate with people as equals in some way. I think that's one of the things that's so rich about travel. It's an incredible learning experience for me. The focus of my travel became very different because of that."
Neely says her journeys have given her a more profound sense of empathy, especially visiting many countries farther down the road not taken. In turn, she hopes she's left an inspiring impression on those whose paths she has crossed on her travels. Communicating with locals on her voyages has been a priority for the Texas-based traveler. While she's studied French and Italian, she says even just learning rudimentary parts of another country's language can enhance one's experience.
Perhaps surprisingly, she says one of her best travel excursions was to Iran. "They were exemplars of kind hospitality to this American and repeatedly told me how they loved Americans - not our government, but Americans," Franci Neely explains.
Spending time with the Iranian people is something Neely says she's deeply grateful for - yet she understands it's not something everyone has the chance to do. "I'm fortunate I have had that opportunity. I realize it's hard to have these opportunities," Neely says. "The language of a particular culture tells you so much about the way that that culture thinks. So go travel the world."
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