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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 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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