April 19th, 2010 - Discount airlines, catch the fever. I purchased a ticket on Fly Dubai for $85 one way to Baku, Azerbaijan. I neglected to prepay for my checked bag online. I erroneously believed this to be of little consequence and was summarily punished for my insolence. When I arrived at the counter I was slapped with a $50 excess baggage fee (more than double the online fee). It was listed in the fine print on my e-ticket but as I have never experienced such a phenomenon I failed to notice the warning. Stupid.
My second 'kick in the junk' came after my arrival at the airport in Baku. Price of a one month visa? $131. Muchas gracias. I found it a rather amazing coincidence that this was the exact price of my visa in Bangladesh. $131? Why not $131.43 if you really want to be a-holes about it? Well, as it turns out this is actually a reciprocal 'Go F Yourself' aimed at the United States because that is the price the US charges nationals from Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, and a host of other countries. Azerbaijan claims to be attempting to woo foreign tourists in an effort to expand tourism. I'm no marketing manager but I am fairly sure charging an inflated price for a visa is not the way to go. Then again, who the hell am I, really?
Although Baku is no Dubai it still is a rather modern city with all the accouterments of any industrialized society. This is due in no small part to the Caspian Sea with all of its oil and gas reserves. Hotels are not cheap and it is difficult to find anything decent under $60. Couchsurfing to the rescue. I connected with a former Peace Corps volunteer by the name of Kyle living and working in Baku that was kind enough to offer me a place to stay for a while. As he has lived here for over three years he is a wealth of information about the country and its people. As a fluent Azeri speaker he has had the opportunity to connect with the local population in ways few visitors could ever dream of. Very cool.
Although I am far from blending I feel a little less conspicuous in Baku than elsewhere. Unfortunately, not many people speak English and are much more likely to speak Russian or Farsi (besides Azeri that is). So far grunting and pointing has sufficed, at least when I am wandering the streets alone. Otherwise Kyle does the rest.
For the most part folks you meet on the street sport a very stoic and taciturn exterior. Usually, this melts away once you engage. And what is a constant source of amusement for me is the resemblance that 99.9% of the men in this city have with the mafia. Almost all either look like a low level henchmen or a crime boss. Every time I meander past a group of men (taxi drivers, pedestrians, restaurant workers, etc.) if feels a little like they been hired to kill me and are merely waiting for the right moment to spring. I absolutely love it but it can be difficult to stifle laughter at times.
Prasha Verchenko (aka The Juicemaker) and his wife. Serves as fresh produce supplier to the Papademes crime syndicate (Russian agricultural mafia)
Samir Gambouli (aka The Negotiator). His 'negotiations' usually involve excruciating tickle torture
Boris Yelyslavo - Freelance canine assassin. Suspected in 48 open murders
'Popcorn' Prechencko. Uses this cart as a cover for the distribution of illegally smuggled sweet corn from the US and Canada
The Borscht Brothers - Have a complete monopoly on the Azerbaijani beet market
Jimmy 'The Head' Dimitri - Infamous for his exceptionally hard noggin and his various methods for inflicting pain with his forehead
After I snapped these pics I learned that it is illegal to take photos of anyone without their permission. Apparently, some journalists took a few shots of government officials sleeping on the job. Their response was to pass an absurd regulation forbidding such scandalous behavior (the taking of photos, not sleeping). This basically means that any photo with people it has the potential to send you to jail. Can you say over broad?
I walked into mobile phone center to purchase a SIM card for my phone. Upon entering the man working there yells, 'Barack Obama!' I thought Damn, there goes my cover. While waiting for the necessary paperwork this gentleman begins exposing the evils of America (in a very cordial manner) in regards to the nuclear issue. His broken English was impeccable and included a barrage of nouns. America have nuclear bomb, Russia, yes. France, yes. Iran, no bomb. At this point he begins a diatribe in Azeri which I interpreted as 'Iran has no nuclear bomb only wants to use for power so why doesn't America just leave them alone and f*** off!!' And if they do have nuclear bomb, so what? You have one. France has on. Russia has one'.
Believe it or not this was all said in a friendly tone but my ability to control my laugh reflex was deteriorating exponentially by the moment. Luckily, the young woman filling out the phone paperwork began laughing so I was able to let loose a bit. It did not stop there. Iran good people. Not bad people. Why America kill good Muslims? America no like Islam. No kill good Muslims. Osama bin Laden not Muslim. Throughout his speech I would interject with, No, Iran people very nice. I wish to visit Iran or yes, sometimes America baaaaad or Sadaam also bad Muslim, right? I was still laughing about that for an hour afterward.
While passing a small Turkish restaurant the gentleman working the street window and selling shaved meat off a skewer requested a photo of him in action. I graciously obliged. His coworker wanted in on this so he grabbed a large knife and posed for a shot. And not to be outdone a random guy on the street got down on the ground and stood on his shoulders while kicking his feet in the air in an effort to get my attention. I thought he might request money but only rose from the ground and moved along. Awesome.
I went into a café around 9 am one morning. Kyle was on his way to work but came inside to inquire on my behalf. We were initially told the place was closed (my theory is that they forgot to lock the door) but a second gentleman emerged from the interior to assure us that it was open. Kyle went to work while I sat down for a cup of tea. There was no one else in there and all was silent…unless you count the sound of porn emanating from a television in the back. While I surfed the internet I was treated to a soundtrack of ecstasy. It went well with the tea. At about 10:30 am I was told they were closing. Closing at 10:30 am? Okay.
I've discovered that finding a hotel is much more difficult when it has been demolished. Funny how that works. It is safe to say that just about all of Baku (and Azerbaijan for that matter) is under construction. They are in the process of tearing down all the old Soviet style buildings and replacing them with more classical styles. This is a bit of a shame as some of these structures have real character.
So for the past few days I have simply been wandering the streets of Baku and snapping random photos here and there. The Old City is particularly picturesque with its ancient wall and structures, to include what is known as the Maiden Tower. There is also the promenade along the Caspian Sea which makes for a pleasant stroll. It is nice to visit a Europeanesque city that lacks chaotic traffic (it is all relative of course), intense pollution, and, for the most part, exceedingly narrow streets and sidewalks. Quite a contrast to some of the places I've been on this trip.
White Trash? Nouveau Riche? Potato, Potatoe. Yes, that is a Mercedes with a camper attached to the rear.
To the Douchbagmobile!!!!!
Ever heard of the Hash House Harriers? It is a social club that affectionately describe itself as 'drinkers with a running problem'. There are chapters all over the world and they frequently meet on Sundays for a noncompetitive run followed with an alcoholic reward. From what I've read it began as a way to purify oneself after a weekend of debauchery (the original runs were held on Monday evenings). Periodically, as was the case this weekend, they get together for an extended weekend outside of the city (on this occasion it was in the northern town of Nabran). As they had an extra spot open up I was invited to tag along with Baku Hashers. The drinking begins as soon as you get on the bus and doesn't cease until the bus returns to Baku. The run mimics the traditional British Paper Chase (Hares and Hounds). The 'hares' are responsible for setting a semi-ambiguous trail somewhere in the countryside while the 'hounds' have to attempt to follow the trail, usually marked with spots of flour.
It was an interesting way to experience the forest in the north of Azerbaijan and was quite fun. The first run was on the grounds of some sort of bizarre vacation resort with a kitschy medieval theme. I believe we had permission to be there but the police did show up to see what the hell a bunch of yahoos were doing running through the forests adjacent to a nearby village. From what we could tell someone must have called them to investigate what we were up to. The whole experience was rather 'soviet' for lack of a better word. They spoke with our bus driver and then made their way to our group. I am sure the sight of a bunch of folks dressed in running attire and sipping beer is not something they see every day. They definitely looked the part with their wool hats (known as a papakhi) and grave expressions. One of them got on the phone to call back to the station to report and seek further instructions. After ten minutes he received a call back apparently giving them the green light to leave. They kindly shook everyone's hand, got back in their patrol vehicle, and departed. All that and no bribe request (not an uncommon occurrence). Super.
In order to be a true 'Hasher', as they are called, you must be anointed, given a nickname, and initiated with copious amounts of flour. Some of the more colorful names include Teletubby, Dominatrix, Screams and Creams, Rubberduck, Sticky Sex, Sticky Balls, Hashvestite, Ginger Wolf Pecker, Table Dancing Queen, and Social Sex. It does not take a detective to appreciate the theme. This was one of those rare occasions where I had little fear of offending anyone. 'No holds barred' would be an appropriate phrase with this group.
At the end of the second run I was fortunate enough to be inducted into their ranks. This was quite an honor as it usually requires ten runs before one is anointed and bequeathed a name. From this time forward I will be known to Hashers everywhere as Doggy Dick. Who knows, when I return home I may make it legal. It does have a nice ring to it.
Mate! it's been ages since Kathmandu......still in Istanbul after a few days snowboarding in the Bolu mountains. Made it to Sofia (what a wierd place!) but i have to say, Baku's seaside looks like a carbon copy of Tyre in Southern Lebanon!ReplyDelete
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