INGULFED

In Shanghai

Archive for November, 2010

The Theory of Relativity — النظرية النسبية

Those buildings are really old, the water’s freezing, and that pumpkin pie is delicious. Well… relatively.

The word “relative” comes from something in Latin that I believe has to do with how weird an uncle seems given the comportment of his extended family. The weirder the relatives, the more normal the uncle… relatively. Near the Dubai Palm, forty year-old buildings endure like stewards of a forgotten age. In Abu Dhabi, the 80 degree bay water that tastes like it has been liberally salted by a gefilte fish factory feels nippy — to some. In the palm of my hand, an iPhone app tells me I’m now finally one of the best (read: most addicted) 100,000 players in the world — a perfect measure of my relative skill/lameness/free time. And in a local hotel serving a sumptuous Thanksgiving buffet, pumpkin pie still the right color after a spicing accident tastes more like home than Umm Ali ever will.

The fourth Thursday in November has this rare power — to make every American living abroad realize his or her place in that “scheme of things” everyone is always talking about. Not everyone has jumped on the Americana bandwagon, not everyone knows what it’s all about. Really, except for the Canadians who celebrated Thanksgiving the first Monday in October (for other reasons, I believe — something about the repeal of a syrup tax), not a soul understands why something that looks like strawberry jam is served next to pulverized potatoes. Out here, I have thanksgiving with the kind of Indians Columbus had been trying to find. Lucky for him, had he caught they right wind, he’d have had a turkey day spread of daal and tandoori that would’ve made the English stomach double over at the Queen’s mercy.

Give thanks, America, that we still have our individual quirks, that not all of our traditions befit the world’s adoption. Free speech, equality — these ideals we can strive to make absolute, but a day of fowl-based gourmandizing and near-footless football — that can be our thing.

It’s a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, and in shorts, wrinkled T-shirt, aviators and flip-flops, I’m the weird one. It would be normal somewhere else, though, I told myself beneath the shades. This is what it feels like to feel totally fine, normal, not anxious, when everyone else thinks you’re nuts. I knew I wasn’t fitting the norm — that less than a hundred miles north I could get arrested for showing that much leg — but that where I came from I was guilty of nothing more than bedhead and lazy dressing. I felt the glares and they didn’t faze me; had my relatives shot me the same pointed stares, I’d’ve felt much more nervous.

I wonder if New York “crazies” have the same effect on each other. Is it embarrassing for the naked schizophrenic unicyclist to get called a nutjob by a man dressed as the Watergate complex? If we wrap ourselves in a blanket of relativity, we’re vulnerable only to those wrapped up with us. If you only think of yourself as relative to your country, there’s no need to worry about what them foreigners think. If you’re only relative to yourself, what difference does it make if no one else likes your one-man rendition of Cats?

Popped collarers, too, don’t feel the heat when everyone’s eyes scream you’re a douche. Yes, everyone feels cooler with a popped collar — hell, it even makes sense in the desert sun — but we don’t all think as relatively. Sometimes it’s helpful to put yourself in a smaller bubble, to relate only to those genetically immune to comments about extreme WASPiness. Other times, it’s better to throw ourselves in with the whole world, if only to realize in how many ways we’re weird, if only to briefly quantify ourselves in more objective terms.

High Noon: Reloaded is the perfect example of our Excel spreadsheeted world in which categories can be drawn and redrawn at the click of a button. In tiny letters at the top of my iPhone, the game nonchalantly offers alternatives for how I conceive of my place in the universe: “Worldwide,” I am the 99,685th most talented gunslinger; “Nearby,” I am 108th. And among my group of online friends — my “Shitlist” — I’m number one.

Relativity can make us do crazy things. Relative to what mothers have been doing since time immemorial, ironing, for example, is no extreme pastime. In absolute terms, however, ironing clothes is the most illogical thrill seeking behavior anywhere in the world. Worst case: maimed for life just by knocking over a little plastic thing. Best case: a flat shirt. But hey, my relatives have been doing this for generations. Fuck wrinkles — I’m in.

Azerbaijan Six: Flight

Previously, in Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة
Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب
Azerbaijan Three: The Trick — أذربيجان ثلاثة: الخدعة
Azerbaijan Four: Rest (and a little paranoia)
Azerbaijan Five: Lost and Found — أاذربيجان خمس: مفقود وموجود

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.

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

Previously, in Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة
Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب
Azerbaijan Three: The Trick — أذربيجان ثلاثة: الخدعة
Azerbaijan Four: Rest (and a little paranoia)

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.

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Azerbaijan Four: Rest (and a little paranoia)

(اذربيجان اربعة: الاستراحة (وشويّ جنون العظمة

Previously, in Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة
Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب
Azerbaijan Three: The Trick — أذربيجان ثلاثة: الخدعة

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.

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Azerbaijan Three: The Trick — أذربيجان ثلاثة: الخدعة

Previously, in Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة
Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب

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.


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Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب

Previously, in Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة


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.

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Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة

(Click photos to make big)


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.

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