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 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-hold-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.
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.
See more Azerbaijan photos here