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.
“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?”
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