My sister recently decided she is obsessed with going to Azerbaijan on a Fulbright scholarship after she finishes college.
I know, I know, don’t ask - obscure travel cravings run in my family, it would seem.
Anyhow, her slew of emails and blog posts related to all things Azeri inspired me to look back at my own trip to Azerbaijan in the summer of 2008.
Overlooking the Caspian Sea in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital.
It was a different time, that era of my life in Dubai a few years ago - a time when my flatmate Eric and I used to sit down at our dining room table every Wednesday night, split a bottle of wine and scour the websites of various developing-world airlines for flight deals, vociferously debating the pros and cons of Eritrea versus Krygyzstan as a weekend getaway. More often than not, we would find ourselves bleary-eyed at 2 AM, having purchased tickets to a destination that prompted the response “You’re going where? … Why?” when we triumphantly announced our travel plans to colleagues at work the next day.
While it was a great era, it is not one I’d necessarily want to go back to. Because let’s be honest - while awesome, those trips (and, uh my life at that time) were always something of… well, a clusterf*ck.
Take our trip to Azerbaijan.
For starters, our ghett-tastic flight left at the ridiculous hour of 3:30 AM. Packing in the middle of the night in our darkened apartment on no sleep, I took this as an opportunity to show off my supreme lack of coordination and run into a door, giving me a sweet shiner to show off for the rest of the weekend.
One ices these kinds of injuries in the taxi en route to the airport, obviously.
We arrived in Baku at o’dark hundred, found a hotel, slept for a few hours and then headed out the next morning to explore the capital’s touristic delights - like… really creepy / depressing post-Soviet artwork at the Azerbaijan State Museum of History.
This kind of art should not be inflicted upon people who already have a headache due to their black eye.
After that, we stopped by Azerbaijan’s “Election” Information Centre to learn a bit more about the glories of post-Soviet democracy.
Really, guys? You’re holding “elections” this year? [Wink wink, nudge nudge!] Can’t we at least pretend there is a viable democratic process somewhere in the CIS?
Then we got bored with doing earnest touristy things and we went out for drinks, where we met and summarily befriended members of Azerbaijan’s men’s junior national wrestling team.
I don’t think I need to tell you that the evening only went downhill from there.
The next morning, through the fog of our hangover, we decided it was a good idea to find a driver to take us to the allegedly picturesque (damn you, Lonely Planet!) mountaintop village of Xinaliq, about five hours outside Baku.
The village of Xinaliq, in all its glory. I think as a general rule, one should try to avoid such phonetically challenging locations whilst hungover. You live, you learn.
As it turned out, not only was Xinaliq neither picturesque nor touristy in the least, there was also nothing there. Not a shop, not a restaurant, and nary a
n English-speaker person in sight. When we finally happened upon a lone villager walking down the road dirt path, our driver translated and told him that the foreigners were hungry (oh! so hungover and hungry!), at which point the villager offered to slaughter a goat for us for the bargain price of 100 euros… which I’m pretty sure is higher than the entire annual GDP of this region of Azerbaijan.
We thanked him but politely declined, deciding instead to head back towards Baku and “civilization.” Along the way, we happened upon a roadside cafe - an Azeri truck stop, of sorts - where we had a lunch of grilled meat, fresh tomatoes, pillowy bread, and… beer and vodka, as encouraged by our Azeri driver. (Hey, when in Rome…)
Please note the ongoing wonky eye.
From our perspective, the rest of the afternoon looked more or less like this:
OH HAY Y’ALL JUST POSIN’ WITH A SWEET LADA! [Falls over.]
Then we saw a roadside farmers’ stand, and we remembered how good our lunchtime tomatoes had been, and how rare it is to find nice produce in Dubai… and the next thing we knew, we had decided to import 40 pounds of tomatoes back to the UAE. (File under: things that seemed like a good idea
at the time after sharing a liter of Azeri vodka.)
Vine-ripened tomatoes and banged-up Louis Vuitton… essentials for the seasoned traveler.
Somehow, we arrived back in Dubai in the middle of the night with our precious cargo (somewhat) intact. And as we rocked up to our apartment sometime around 4 AM, crates of crushed Azeri tomatoes in tow, Eric looked at me with contrition in his eyes and lamented, “Gubbi… only a drunk person would think this was a good idea.”
The bounty of our international harvest.
So there, I’ve laid out a travel challenge for my baby sister: she can go to Azerbaijan, oh yes.
But she can’t say I didn’t warn her about the hijinx…
(July 2008 in Baku and Xinaliq, Azerbaijan.)
*Gratuitous Picture of Your Travels Wednesday