(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Azerbaijan: The Whole F*cking Story — أذربيجان: القصّة

(Click photos to make big)

Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة

Stocked with only a hostel address and a belly full of McDonalds, we boarded an airplane in Dubai, half full with Brobdingnagian body builders and others who looked like they knew where they were going. We didn’t. Shouldn’t I feel like I’m going home at long last? said the Caucasian in me. It is, after all, the Caucasus. But the feeling didn’t take, and I settled in excitedly for our trip north (“it’s north right?”) — to a capital city whose name I’d learned a month earlier, in a country I couldn’t yet place on a globe.

Baku is calculated city filled with spontaneous people. Or is it the other way around… somehow, in the hustle and bustle that surrounds and penetrates the walls of the millenium-old “Inner City,” a sense of order prevails — the sense that someone knows exactly what’s supposed to be going on. The popular section of downtown near İçəri Şəhər (ih-cherry sha-har), the “Old” or “Inner’ City, could compete for most fountains per-capita, with wide, immaculate stone boulevards reminiscent of Vienna or Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”. In this small section of town where Medieval meets Soviet and the urban plans of a new and liberated city, folks mingle to the sounds of construction and cultures smashing together.

But a traveler also gets the feeling that most of the smashing is in yesterday’s history — that Persian traditions, Turkish culture and Russian influence have already been absorbed, and that the modern result is a cocktail that is almost exclusively Azeri. This is not like the New York of today, where we eat sitting on the floor to “try something new”. This is like the New York of tomorrow, where we pick up tacos with chopsticks because it’s what we’ve been doing for years.

Through this wanders the rogue tourist, usually directionless and lost in “the ride” (like us), or else feverishly dedicated to the voyage — the trip through forgotten places overlooked in the travel guides printed wherever home is (was). A discombobulated Irish woman, face worn with wind, headed for Turkmenistan with a long-awaited letter of invitation. She left our hostel for one of the cargo ferries the internet says no longer exist, across the Caspian just to get somewhere else. Another bunkmate packed his bags for Kazakhstan. Others woke up late, stretched, and drank tea.

We found sustenance in veal stews sprinkled with luscious pomegranate, and in food that looked just like its picture.

Past the iconic twelfth-century Maiden’s Tower, stone streets swirl past carpet shops up the hills to the complex of the Shirvanshahs, the rulers of the Azeri territory for a long, long time a long, long time ago. Small mosques and chambers, the ruins of ancient bathhouses, and crumbled friezes engraved with Persian script stand out as the main “attraction” of a city whose character is better walked through than photographed.
(Here’s some photographs:)

In its way, the city wanders with us, fazed by the speed of its own development. A triangular roundabout was designed so openly that drivers would blast straight through to their deaths without the now necessary police cars stationed full time to direct traffic. Palm trees grow resolutely next to evergreens. The city is even unsure of its own name: Baku to some, Baki (or Baky) to others. And of course, with confusion comes coincidence. The brother-in-law of a would-be cab driver worked in the very town where both of my parents grew up — in suburban Connecticut.

Up a giant flight of stairs at a high point in the city, we looked down at the entire Absharon peninsula, where like an eagle’s beak Baku and its suburbs curl into the Caspian. With so distinctive a coastline, Baku does offer one of the world’s solid “Google Earth” views — a moment when your internal compass is perfectly calibrated and you see in front of you the vision of a perfect map. The sight is amazing: dense city sprawl blankets every visible plot of land. Past the mysterious old city and the sparkling corniche, past the coastal oil drills and the unfinished glass skyscrapers lurks the uninviting, ultraindustrial Baku populated only by necessity.

“What other metro stations should we go to?” I asked one local who spoke English outside a subway stop other people seemed to have found very deliberately .
He never really understood that I was just looking for things worth seeing, anywhere worth being in. He mentioned İçəri Şəhər, the stop we’d gotten on. Oh and also, he added, there’s a place to walk the chic boulevard.
“What stop is that?”
“That’s İçəri Şəhər, too.”

We climbed back down into the city where few locals drink but you can open local wine in the street, where taxi drivers pounce on anyone with a camera, and where English is the language of far off lands whose influence runs dry by the time it trickles through the highest levels of government. “Ruskei znayet?” everyone asks (in improper Russian), do you understand Russian? And with that, we descend into a language of hand gestures, frustration, and silence. What we can’t point to, we’ll just have to find on our own.

Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب

I woke at dawn, as one tends to do in such pressing times. One day down, a whole country left to see. With a visa costing about a buck-eighty per hour, I felt like I was back in a Parisian club with a 20 Euro cover charge, and I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to get my free drink.

A day earlier, we had made plans for our getaway — a hired car and driver, unquestioning and ready to make the drive way west. The negotiations went as smoothly as they could have, considering our plans (visually aided by screenshots of Google Maps) were conveyed through an Azeri-speaking Iranian to an Azeri with almost no English to our driver, an Azeri twenty-something with an endearing stutter. But with no hope of understanding, we sat back and hoped that through this series of telephone translations, something was being conveyed. It seemed to work out, and our man signed on to pick us up at 6 AM for a two-day trip costing less than a two-day car rental. And Misha, the owner of our hostel was coming, too. This was a man who had fought for the Russian’s when he was only 18, and who had fought the Armenians when he was 22 in the region now secessionist and under military control. I wouldn’t tell him I wanted to go there.

Misha explains with pen and paper.

Misha lifted his shirt — a wide scar tore from chest to navel: two bullets had ripped through his stomach and out his back. Without the words to explain, he grabbed my hand and dragged it down his thigh a few inches above the knee. A bump — shrapnel rooted like an enemy flag pole. The President had visited him personally at his house in gratitude. Or to pay him. Or to give a speech… something was lost in translation.

That following dawn, I waited. 6:30 AM, still no one stirring. At 7:30, I found Misha and made grand “huh” and “humph” gestures. He called Niyaz, the stuttering driver. His stutter had forced me to anti-stereotype him — all of my worries, I scolded myself, were the unfair reactions to a simple speech impediment, no more proof of character than a peg leg or a claw arm. But, as I learned from the townsmen who really did know him, he actually was crazy.

Niyaz had parked his car unattended outside the President’s house (the son of the man who once praised Misha in his), and had lost it to the police. This Misha explained to me at great length and with fabulous gesticulation — “Police come, where’s driver? No driver.” But Niyaz would fetch the car at 9:00, he said, and we’d leave then.

So I drank tea from a large glass mug, and ran to the sea as the sun poked over the horizon and between the clouds. For a brief moment, the sky exploded with orange pink before the sun rose into the overcast sky. I took some photos, ate a shitty little pastry wrapped in plastic, and walked back to the hostel. It was 9:30. No Niyaz.

By this point, I had asked a 5-star (relative) hotel to look into other options. They had one guy, but he was three-hours away and wanted a lot of money for not much. In three hours, I thought we could do better.

At 10, Misha gave me the update: the police wanted 300 Manat (about $360), and Niyaz wasn’t going to pay up. So… no car. Back to square one. And with the initial beauty of the sunrise hour now lost and forgotten, we found ourselves in a race against the clock — to leave Baku before it was too late (to… you know… to see stuff).

An earlier car rental prospect had canceled on us for being underage (their insurance, supposedly, only trusted 23 year-olds), but we thought we might find a willing sponsor in our hostel. A sweet Dutch couple agreed to sign their names to our agreement, but then decided to just come right along with us. And then decided the whole thing was stupid and would rather spend their time a little more wisely. Square one again. Lower than square one.

Misha suggested we drive into the city, where he had heard of rental shops. His book of addresses and phone numbers, of course, was missing, allegedly stolen by past guests. We waited for a taxi. We couldn’t take any taxi, no — wait, wait, my friend is coming — he knows where it is. And after the cabbie had finished his coffee, we drove into the thickest traffic anywhere in the Caucasus. Cars inched up the hill to downtown and even worse traffic, passengers abandoned their drivers and walked, and we slumped in the backseat of our cab, hostage to the movement of the city. The sun beat down spitefully, heralding the total loss of our morning.

Construction had left rubble on the streets like some bombed out Soviet warzone. Sure, here it was deliberate, but I felt as if we had driven so slowly we’d gone back in time. And of course, we hadn’t found what we were looking for.

I snuck into an internet café (without the café) and searched frantically for the names of places that rented cars. I didn’t know where any of them were. With no language in common, I couldn’t even ask if we were near them — “Hertz? Yes. Hertz.” That was about as far as I got.

Somehow, with Misha’s help, we found our way to a back lot with two cars and a man who purported to be in charge of renting them. Too expensive. Cheaper was on its way. Through traffic.

In the meanwhile, we filled out our “agreement”. I wouldn’t turn over my passport, no way, but I’d give them a copy and a copy of a credit card. At times, it seemed like I was the one outlining the terms of engagement, telling them what made sense, and what standard business practices would have been for a business in their position. We were going to pay 80, eighty manat, to drop the car off 27 hours later at the airport. We made it very clear. Many smiles — the handmaiden of misunderstanding. No one we were renting from (at DDD car rental in Baku) spoke English, but a translator on the phone struggled to convey that we were renting for two days. Fine, we said. We’re paying 80. Call it whatever you like.

And after 10-15 minutes Azeri time (about an hour), our car came, we refused to take any more phone calls, and we left with no direction towards somewhere else.

Azerbaijan Three: The Trick — أذربيجان ثلاثة: الخدعة

Our destination was big: not here — but still we found it hard to find. It was either linguistically or culturally impossible to ask directions, so we turned like explorers of old to our (iPhone) compass and sought a course north and west out of Baku. We ended up going south in heavy traffic. So we paid five manat and followed a taxi, our Azeri Sacajawea, to lead us to the great wide west. And very suddenly, over a few hills and around a bend or two, the city was gone.

After such inauspicious beginnings, a traveler may succumb — opting for a nap instead of ten hours on the open road. But should you defy the dead end, you explode like a stallion from the starting gate of every detour. Extend your middle finger to lockers of gates. This is your lightening rod.

The M1 highway was quiet; old Russian cars straining to go highway speed, a few new models, rickety sedans filled to burst with apples. The road flattened and the scenery changed instantly. Thirty miles inland, the capital seemed a continent away, with its industry and trade and petroleum. Here, a man sold sweet, ruby red pomegranates by the roadside. A couple dollars for a kilogram.

We never found the famous (by Azeri standards) mud volcanoes of Qobustan, even when we asked a mechanic in Qobustan. Rumor has it, taxis wait in town to drive you to a field of eerie oozing cones of mud. Maybe next time.

We pressed on, past schools letting children out for the day, past towns forgotten by time and the government, past dozens of men and kids on the street all selling bags of the same something. Each one marked out fifty yards or so of territory along the road, hoping to snag the driver who suddenly decides on that stretch that he wants what’s in that bag.

A steaming samovar puffed invitingly by the highway, now nothing more than a twoish-lane country road. We stopped for tea. Hot black tea poured into the distinctive Azeri glasses and served the Russian way with lemons and jam — this is the perfect companion to the crisp November jacket weather that I felt for the first time since the San Francisco summer. Inquisitiveness: the young man, somewhere in the ballpark of my age, asked about our car, my camera, where we came from. We had, of course, no languages in common. I think that’s what he was asking about.

His father called us over to the other table to talk and laugh, and walked us up to see the back of the house — a large field crawled up a hill and caught the setting sunlight. He asked us to stay the night. Thank you thank you, but we must be getting on, I must’ve said. “To Sheki.”

We were headed to Sheki, a town way up north and many, many miles away, because someone had said it was nice. With nothing else to go on, that meant a lot.

But before we could leave, and happily pay the price we knew to be arbitrary (they smiled and laughed to each other before telling us), the father caught sight of my video camera to his infinite delight. He introduced us to his friend the policeman, just arrived in his car. “Look, look!” He handled the camera and pointed it at this and that.

Now I was caught in the perennial paradox of stereotyping that confronts each traveler in different ways: do you let a situation unfold past the point of comfort, or do you play it safe and get your hands back on your camera?

The policeman got in his car. “Look!” said the father. Now he was on the point of handing the camera through the car window. I got closer. “Show him!” He looked delighted.

I stepped in. Hey, come on, keep it outside the car. I had my hand on his now, pulling back, sternly but smiling. He pushed a little — the policeman had his hand out. He can see from there! Come out and look.

My fears were out in the open. They knew what I thought, and I’d never know if I was right. I shouldn’t have told them how much it cost — a number like that in a place where a fancy meal might cost eight dollars could change the curious into the scheming. Or not. But soon the policeman lost interest and drove away. And the father loosened his grip, laughing like a prankster caught hoisting the pail of water onto the doorsill. He seemed almost impressed that we had foiled the trick, that we were formidable opponents. Or maybe, he just laughed at our prejudice, the prejudice he knew we’d never shake.

So we kept moving, up into the mountains where the sun set over dark green hills and where samovars and picnic tables flanked the windy roads back down to the flat stretches of Azerbaijan. Darkness followed quick, but still we raced on down uneven roads, still checking our faulty compass, still headed for Sheki.

Azerbaijan Four: Rest (and a little paranoia)

High-beams blazing, we barreled down the road to the north. With the scale on screenshots of Google Maps as our only indicator of distance, we would slow each time we felt close to a turn to ask passers by if they had any idea where we were. I’d pick a town name just past where we wanted to turn and repeat it over and over, sometimes with haradadir, “where is…?”

We passed ready to forage through the town of Göyçay, hoping to find anything to keep us alive and driving. A breakfast of half a pomegranate and a lunch of part of a roll and baklava-like pastries that taste like peanut brittle can only go so far. And almost too conveniently, we found a group of young guys who knew the only restaurant in town. As our tradition of total incomprehension required, we followed their car — “No,” I had to say, “you can’t drive ours.”

The Göyçay Cafe looked just like a motel, with a long row of identical small rooms. The dining area, it seemed, was just a small bedroom converted into eating space — our guides did the talking and arranged for a waiter (shockingly professional) to bring a spread. They weren’t hungry.

Again, paranoia kicked in like practiced defense. You don’t know martial arts, so you should probably just stay a little scared. Why would five guys drive us to a cafe just to sit? It was freezing, especially after October in the Gulf, but I kept making excuses to open the door when they closed it. And even though we had left wallets in the car, the tiny motel room still begged to play host to trouble should anyone want to cause any. I caught myself thinking, if we were really in danger, why would they have given us knives? The cutlery certainly had us on an even playing field.

But our fear was their curiosity, and we were far too hungry to leave. We ate, and they watched us eat, soon saying their goodbyes and heading off. When preparing for the worst case precludes the best case, a traveler must choose. To lose: some money, maybe a finger if the gang has a flare for the dramatic. To gain: vital meats, cheeses and soup. We took a middle path.

On the road more and more blistered with potholes, towns grew farther apart. We cut through pitch black, surrounded on both sides by a great question mark — was it water? Fires of uncertain size burned unattended, spooky and totally unexplained. Soon, pedestrians gave short directions when we asked for Sheki — without laughing in shock, as they had, at the distance we had left to cover.

We had two turns left to make. The road sloped up, street lamps sprung up on the roadside, and we were there — of course, without a place to stay. With only seven hours before we hoped to take off, we looked first to convince the concierge of the five-star (as rated by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Tourism) Sheki Saray Hotel to let us sleep on the cheap. No go.

“Is there anywhere less pricy?” I asked.
“Try down the road.”

It was no ordinary down-the-road late night accommodation. But take heed, for what comes next both invites and spoils the certain delight for which it is nearly the only sign. To know of this wonder of Sheki, a famous town along the Silk Road, — to seek it out on purpose — is to never quite experience it in full. There’s the rub. And here it is:

The Sheki Caravanserai is perched atop a hill lit by streetlight, and marked only by a lamppost with lettering in silhouette. At midnight, the vast shadow of the building
is a dark mass, heavy and drawing you toward the slimmer of light around a small door cut in the massive wooden gate. A heavy knocker. An immense domed stone foyer. Rooms for 20 bucks. And, as in the grand caravanserais of old, there was wi fi.

We parked out front like so many centuries of silk merchants, to spend the night by the fire (now electric heaters) and to give our ride (their camels, our Hyundai) a rest. No hostel bookers, just a light outside and a gatekeeper at the ready, opening the door with a glint in his eye: Of course we have room.

For one quarter the price of that fancy hotel room, we found luxury in age old digs — dozens and dozens of rooms along a beautiful courtyard tucked into the mountainside, heavy blankets, and the warmth that comes from finding the very best of something. Total relief: this was hands down the single greatest place to spend the night in northwestern Azerbaijan.

<h2<Azerbaijan Five: Lost and Found — أاذربيجان خمسة: مفقود وموجود

We had maps. We had names of towns along the route. We had the word “where”. And we were completely lost.

According to our screenshot map, there were two roads out of Sheki toward Yevelax, a town at a junction from which a road would head south into uncharted (for us) territory. One of our friendly pedestrian human GPSes pointed straight, convinced us left was right, and we sped off down a narrowing road into the kind of scenic countryside correct directions always seem to miss. We had intended to retrace our steps from the night before, but with this our first experience in daylight, we assumed the mountains around us were the shadows we had seen the night before, that the wide-open fields had been the deep black emptiness. But nope, we were just going the wrong way.

We slowed down in the early morning cow traffic to film a rush hour chat with the cowherd. He was delighted to speak to the camera, and I understood the question “what channel?” “Ameriki” — easier to agree than to attempt the truth.

“Azerbaijan kharasho!” I said, Azerbaijan good! He didn’t agree. Not good. President not good. Clearly, the man controlling highway traffic to get his cows out to pasture couldn’t care less about political censorship — or political fallout from his high-profile media appearances.

Just when things started to look wrong we found another junction, one not on any map, where men at a service station pointed back the way we came — “Yevelax.” Or, it seemed, we could take the road Google didn’t know about (still paved) and hope for the best.

This, as the sisters of Fate had woven well, was the heart of Azerbaijan. Pavement faded into dirt, threading through small villages with townsmen piling into buses that dodged the potholes. Hills sprung up peppered with sheep and soil, like a whole new era, a whole new livelihood not an hour away from Sheki’s looming masonry. We followed our iPhone compass, disheartening at first as we headed west and not south, but reassuring as we took a final turn between two hills, the screen showed SOUTH, and an archway for the Yevelax municipality welcomed us around the bend.

Streetside fishmongers posed for a photo. The one cafe in town made the two of us eight eggs and tea. We pressed on, now looking for Aghdam, supposedly one of the largest cities in the country.

The road narrowed again. Traffic through small towns, and huge rumbling trucks filled with sheep and other things. Here I practiced the ancient Azerbaijani art of “third-laning,” where a driver can pass even when there are cars in both lanes going opposite directions. This act of creating a third, middle lane is practiced by all drivers hoping to ever get anywhere. Cars bounce between and past the slow trucks, flashing high beams at each other when things get too close, and slowing by the police check points and their radar.

At one definitive-looking checkpoint, a young soldier in military fatigues lifted the bar without asking a question, without us even slowing down. But immediately, the road dissolved again. Real dirt, big bumps and ditches. Half a dozen soldiers bearing Kalashnikov rifles trudged towards somewhere out of file. I asked for directions.

You definitely cannot go this way, they all said with their body language, and fetched the one soldier who spoke any English. We played dumb for a while, but to no avail.

“Road… blocked. No city.”
“Aghdam city? Where is Aghdam?”
“No city.”

We were on the outskirts of the secessionist region Nagorno-Karabakh, which declares its allegiance with Armenia and seems to really, really not like being in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, too, seems unhappy with it, but fervently devoted to keeping it around. In between weekly laid barbed wire and on a road traveled only by army vehicles, it was clear we were meant to be somewhere else. We spun around but took a detour before heading back through the checkpoint around the army camp, over deeply dug but unmanned trenches, by sandbags on a hillside and rocket launchers aimed at the vast no-man’s-land that straddled a forgotten war zone. It was time to turn around. But strangely enough, we would never have been stopped had we not asked for directions to a place from people hired to stop folk from getting there. Driving with enough authority, it didn’t seem like anyone would bother to get in the way.

Azerbaijan Six: Flight

Baku was 360 kilometers away, and we had only a few hours before the flight. I drove fast. Another sign boasted “radar” on their new M2 highway. No worries, radar tickets show up delayed under the car’s registration — not my problem . Not the case.

The police flagged us down at the next checkpoint. Uh-oh. The man made no effort to speak slowly or with simply words — I made it clear I understood nothing (I understood some), but still he pressed on, repeating the same phrases, demanding that I comprehend. Yes, we are all guilty of wanting to grab and shake people onto our wavelength, but movements of complete unwillingness to try another approach, to rephrase, to use hand gestures, anything — are moments of plain, dumb ignorance. I needed to fight dumb with dumber.

Something about maschina which I knew meant car. “Maschina?” I frowned, and made a hammer-and-nail gesture. Let’s play the Confusion card.

He held on to my passport and license and motioned me out of the car; I stashed most of my money, and another policeman read me a list of typed English phrases and pointed to numbers he had penciled in a notebook. One was our license plate. One was the speed limit, 100 kph — a complete waste on one of the only 4-lane roads in Azerbaijan. Another was the speed I’d been going. We argued.

“Airport,” I kept saying. “Flight. Baku airport.” I’d make a plane taking-off hand gesture and point to my watch. I sharaded “running”. We’ve gotta move fast..

“You pay 100 manat,” said a cop.
“Baku airport.”
“100 manat.”
“Airport Baku. Flight.”

Finally, I let on that I understood. “We don’t have 100 manat,” I showed him. Look. I had 12 manat in my wallet. He took them and leaned in. Omani rial, Qatari rial, Nicaraguan cordoba, Emirati dirham… and twenty greenback USA original dollars. Shit. He took those too.

I eyed my passport. We’ve got nothing else. “NO more manat!” They looked indifferent. Three cops. I needed my passport. Time slowed. They talked — now I really didn’t understand.

All of a sudden, they let us go. I almost ran to the car. Still, 35 dollars for a ticket, arbitrarily priced (it seemed) and finally billed at 75%-off — not a terrible deal.

300 kilometers to go. Checkpoints punctuated the route predictably every 20 kilometers or so, and the road opened up to the point where there were no structures on which to rig radar guns. We had lost exactly an hour in the morning to a mysterious phone alarm mishap. We sped up.

But out of that mysterious corner of our eyeball that makes us believe in magic sprung a bold, boxy camera — I punched the brakes. My eyes jerked to the speedometer — 100. If the camera shot as we passed it, we’d be alright… time would tell.

At the next checkpoint, we committed to ignoring all potential signals from the officers — I stared at a map and drove through, pointing and looking exasperated as we bullshitted our way through trouble. Rearview mirror: no lights flashing. No sirens. We’re good.

20 minutes later, another checkpoint appeared — this one with three police cars (they usually had just one) and a posse of bored-looking cops standing around them. Ok, ok — we pulled out the map again, and I blinded myself with it as we navigated the roundabout toward Baku. But there in my side mirror I saw looks in our direction, I saw arms raised, and I saw my future in the Azeri prison system with a burly life partner named Fuad. A choice: the cars never seemed to move. If we ignored them at every turn, they might never follow. But first one car, then three (were they for us?) — would there be ten next? A hundred? They didn’t seem to have much else to do. I pulled over.

A policeman sauntered our way. If there was any communication in the ranks of these super troopers, and if we paid any money at all, they would know we lied to the last officers. Other than the ragtag bit of Arab money we had, we were “officially” broke.

“I have to find you,” the officer stated, leading me toward the others.
“I’m here — why do you have to find me?”
No response.

If something about this struggle to scold had seemed cute, it lost its appeal quickly. My passport and license were taken (again). The man read very deliberately from a handwritten notebook. I saw the words — definitely not my language, but yet he seemed to think he’d found the Rosetta Stone. Every syllable, every phoneme, seemed foreign to English. But then I looked again — it was English, written out in Azerbaijani script. Even though only very few letters are different or missing, Azeris never like to read the Latin alphabet.

“I. Have. To. Fine. You.”
Oh. Of course.

I had then the occasion to perform every well known gesture in international body language for no money!. I patted my pockets, I shrugged emphatically, I looked around for an invisible ATM, I showed them my wallet.

What’s this? He showed me one Omani rial ($2). I picked up pebbles and dirt and scattered them to the wind. He smiled.
And this? 100 Baisa — also Omani, and worth 10 percent of a rial.
“That? That’s 50 dollars — er… 100. Maybe 80.” Confusion.

My travel buddy left the car to have a cigarette, and to share one with another officer. In his wallet: 1000 Emirati dirhams — 270 US Dollars. The officer showed it to us: and this?
“Dirt! That’s nothing. Nothing.”
But still he stared at it, until we practically pulled it away from him, as if that wasn’t clue enough.

So they weren’t satisfied. Some number of dollars (allegedly) in a currency printed in a country they’d never heard of was not enough to pay a fine of an amount so arbitrary reason had nothing to do with it, nor with the defense against it. The officer walked away, disgusted. Smoking a borrowed cigarette, his partner had a softer heart, but to no effect.

We waited. Time clicked by — our flight was getting sooner, palpably. The next flight out was in three days.

And then, as is customary with these waiting games — when boredom replaces the hope for money or a bribe — it just ended. The original officer pushed my passport towards me without looking me in the eye. We sped away.

For the rest of the afternoon, I drove in fear of checkpoints, dreading that our license plate had become a permanent fixture on the official Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense List of Cars to Fuck With. But with the exception of the omnipresent, lurking suspicion that we were headed the wrong way, we found our way smoothly back to the outskirts of Baku.

The route was different; we came from the south on a highway shared at times by covered trucks and lone cows lumbering unfazed toward the city — certainly, they had been walking that road longer than automobiles. The dirt and sand offered an oppressive backdrop ornamented only by the Caspian’s pervasive oil drills; nondescript roadside towns blurred together. And even faster, as the freshly paved four lane highway lost all of its lane markings, I third-laned towards Baku. It was like video game driving, exhilarating and totally free: pick the most efficient path and drive it, no need to use those fancy turning signals or that bourgeois “courtesy”. See some space, go into that space — so pure and simple.

With time running out, we snagged a cab driver and asked him to drive us toward Yanar Dag, a wall of natural gas, eternally on fire and shooting out of a rock wall north of the city, away from the airport. Two and a half hours till take off. Heavy traffic.

Somehow, we had found the country’s most hesitant cab driver — he balked for hours before making his move through one intersection of viscous gridlock — but he seemed to know where he was going. The sun set, the city faded into grungy outskirts, and there it was: a sign for Yanar Dag. How good it feels just to find what you’re looking for.

And as advertised, flames spat from a rock face at the bottom of a natural amphitheater about 20 meters across. Blue fire seethed from one side, huge orange jets flickered powerfully at the other. Standing close, the burning heat feels like a solid wall — I lost some good arm hair to the blaze. In the dark, with picnic tables positioned just feet from the fire, it appeared as an alter to nature’s power, to the bizarre in Azerbaijan, and to the unchanging in the Azeri traffic system. Two-hours till take off. Seventy-five minutes to the airport.

On that last drive, still following our cab driver with whom we had never exchanged a satisfactory sentence, and who we never trusted to be headed in entirely the direction, we found our flight reservations to be an hour later than expected. That hour lost from the morning — found without a scratch.

Of course though, before we left, our car company threatened us with the police — the English of our agreement had not been fully understood. Neither was: “No money. Need to get on plane.”

We collected our bags in haste and hustled toward the terminal. The driver and his sidekick followed, sometimes pulling me by the arm, sometimes shouting at the police to stop us. He explained his story in Azeri. This isn’t going to be a fair fight.

We spent another hour looking in vain for law enforcers with knowledge of English and fair business practices, passing in and out of several security checkpoints, and finally filing into a Customer Service office where we could yell at each other in peace.

With our antagonists at war with our translators, still working nobly to convey our messages, we snuck out.

My relationship with Azerbaijan was quick and intense. Sometimes I think she chose to pick fights on our last day just to make the breakup easier. It’s hard to say goodbye — but like lovers whose best days justify the worst, I know I’ll see her again.

See more photos from Azerbaijan here


  gigi wrote @

Tu vis dangereusement, mais j’adore Captivant.

  V wrote @

Amazing adventures in a strange land, beautifully conveyed. Jealous.

  Emeline wrote @

Superbly illumntiiang data here, thanks!

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