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.
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.