Sunday, July 24, 2011

Baseball and Microbrews in Azerbaijan Part II: The Valley of the Heat and the Doom

We left Balakan in the morning after filling our bellies and water bottles with food and water. The map on Stephanie's wall indicated about 150km to Agdash, where we had a connection in Becca, Clarissa's Peace Corps colleague who teaches English there. We said goodbye to Clarisa and set off in the heat, which was dampened by the plane trees lining the country road descending from the Caucacus into the great valley that cuts through Azerbaijan. Some have named this valley, "The Valley of the Heat and the Doom". Heat and Doom, however, are no match for plane trees, and Jaco and I did well in the shade. The shade ended at about kilometer 100, at about 3pm, when the road crossed the river, then made a 90 degree turn southeast. We ate a whole watermelon, and asked a man at a bus stop in Russo-Turkic how far it was to Agdash.

"120km," he replied with confidence.

We chuckled, and asked someone else.

"120km," someone else replied with confidence.

We did not chuckle this time, and called Becca and told her we would not be arriving in Agdash that night, but made plans to meet up for lunch.

We camped a few kilometers later, and asked a mounted shepherd if we could sleep on his land. He had no problem with it, but told us to move our sleeping bags away from certain bushes where there were snakes. We moved our sleeping bags and started cooking dinner. The shepherd and his brother rode away unconcerned on their horses. We cooked, then ate. At about bedtime thirty, the shepherd's brother came charging down the hills with a flashlight, and began shouting at us in Azeri and shining the flashlights in our eyes. For some reason, he was worried about us sleeping there. Our tired minds were in no mood to move our stuff again, but he seemed really concerned. We had a hard time understanding why we had to move. His efforts to communicate were poor and were not working. He didn't use any gestures, and to make his point stronger, he used the ancient technique of raising the volume of his voice and the more modern technique of shining his flashlight in our eyes. This was frustrating and grated on the senses, but in the end we packed up our stuff and walked with him to his house, where we understood we could sleep. Once we got there there were tea and bonbons waiting for us, as well as fresh honey and fresh warmed milk. The shepherd was there too, and told us that they were so worried about 2 meter long cobras as big as your arm that they had to come get us. An unlikely occurence, but it would have been very nice if they had told us this before, so we wouldn't have had to pack and unpack and trudge our bikes through the tall snake infested grass to their home. In the end we slept in a spare room of theirs. We were woken up two hours before they had told us they would wake us up for no apparent reason in a flurry of the same shouting in Azeri and lack of gestures that had happened the night before. In total confusion, we left, and continued on the road to Agdash, mystified at why we had been woken up so early, but glad to be riding in the early morning cool instead of the mid-afternoon inferno.

A tailwind picked us up, and we soared as if on eagles' wings the 100km to Agdash. We were there by noon, and were greeted by a crowd of 20 or so Azeri dudes. We asked if there was a pay telephone nearby, and suddenly there were 20 or so cell phones being taken out of pockets. We called Becca, and Jaco serenaded them with a fine rendition of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" while we waited for her. When she hopped out of the taxi, they couldn't believe that 3 Americans had congregated in Agdash, and were playing guitar and drinking tea with them. We left after a tea, and had lunch a ways down the road. In a side note, I had to leave lunch early, because I took my first solid poos since Tbilisi! About 3 in 30 minutes! It was quite a sensation.

In Agdash I was also mistaken for first a Pakistani, then a Saudi. This is what beards mean in Azerbaijan. While eating lunch some Azeris told me I needed a haircut, so I got my first professional haircut since 2005. It came with a shave! It was very nice, and made the Heat and Doom in the Valley a bit more manageable.

By the time my haircut was over, the earth had turned sufficiently to ease suffering caused by the Heat and Doom, and Becca mentioned that she thought there was a Peace Corps Volunteer living in Ucar, city of dreams in the hottest region of the whole country. The heart of the Valley of the Heat and the Doom. She hadn't met him though, as he had arrived a year after she had. Being so well connected though, she made a few phone calls, and soon had his number, and called him up. She introduced herself and us. Dan, the volunteer, said he would be happy to put us up for the night. Ucar was 25km away, and off we went in the early evening blaze.

"Ucar is a ghost town where the people haven't left yet," quoted Dan from the guide book he had bought before arriving in Azerbaijan. Dan has the unenviable position of being posted in the hottest region in the country. He is the only volunteer living in Ucar, and said he spends most of the day trying to avoid the sun. While he is avoiding the sun he works on his project, which is setting up and maintaining a network of bike clubs for kids in Azerbaijan. He coordinates and leads rides throughout the region and the country, and is promoting bicycles as a means of recreation and transportation in a country that is swimming in gasoline. He has a big house with a pomegranate tree in the garden, and a cool, Old West style porch. He has a french press, and coffee from Seattle, his home town. We drank beers from the standard plastic bottles they come in here, and had a fine dinner in Ucar with Dan, and slept well. He had a full size guitar, and songs about cows walking in trash heaps. We had a fine time, and were humbled by the hospitality shown us. Dan had accepted us with only a few hours' notice, by a phone call from someone he hadn't ever met. The Peace Corps network is alive and well and in Azerbaijan.

In the morning I reawakened my coffee habit, and we left at around noon in the heart of the Valle of the Heat and the Doom. Baku, visas, and the Caspian Sea were only 2 days away.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Baseball and Microbrews in Azerbaijan Part I: Balakan

The visa to get into Azerbaijan was difficult to get, but finally on our third try in Tbilisi with the help of the dedicated and friendly staff at the Culture Popularization Centre in Tbilisi we got our visas. We could now ride on to Azerbaijan. And on we did ride.

We left Tbilisi in a ferocious traffic storm of Ladas, Audis, and minibuses who seemed more concerned with dodging potholes and honking at each other than being considerate to bicyclists. Once out of the city, the riding was a cruise through wine valleys and small towns. We slept in a castle. On our second day out of Tbilisi Mr. Sun decided to really beat down, and we had to stop just short of the border to Azerbaijan in a town called Lagodekhi. We were treated well in Lagodekhi, and had a feast at the home of Jega. We drank his homemade wine, ate well, and gave him and his large, Green Day loving posse a concert. It was bike touring deluxe. We slept well, and prepared ourselves for our grand entry into Azerbiajan the next day where we were due in Balakan, the first town across the border where we had planned for months on meeting Ms. Clarissa Chan.

Clarissa Chan. Clarissa Chan went to Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. King is right between Hopkins and Rose streets in North Berkeley, with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It's an inspiring place, definitely. I went there. I even took a cycling class there in 8th grade. Well, Clarissa went there, and graduated the same year. She then went to Berkeley High! Hey, so did I! So did Jaco! What a coincidence! After Berkeley High though, like so many people in whose company I grew up, I lost touch with Clarissa. It had been years. Last summer though, my friend Hannah told me that she thought Clarissa was living in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan! I had just started to think about planning this trip, and I said, "holy smokes, I should get in touch with Clarissa!" For this reason I joined facebook, because this was the only way Hannah had of getting in touch with her, and I sent her a message on those white and blue waves of facebook netsurfing. Sure enough, she was living in Azerbaijan as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and would be in the city of Balakan on the same day that we were to enter Azerbaijan.

So we crossed the border, had an ice cream cone with the border guard, answered that no we had not been to Armenia, and rolled pleasantly on the 20 downhill kilometers to a gigantic flag of Azerbaijan in the middle of town. A crowd of about 20 gathered as we rode in and got off our bikes, and we asked in Azero-Turkish if we could use someone's cell phone. Everyone in the crowd whipped out their phones, and we picked one. We called Clarissa. She picked up, and met us in 5 minutes. She was in the same square, paying her respects to the Azeri flag. So after spending every school day from 1997 to 2004 at the same school then losing touch completely, 3 B High Yellowjackets were standing there in a big square in a small town in the Caucasus Mountains in Northwest Azerbaijan. It was about 2pm, and the sun was high. Clarissa said, "yeah, if you guys want, some Peace Corps people are playing baseball in the afternoon".

Heat stroke is a serious issue, which Clarissa clearly had not thought of when she delivered this news. I fainted, and dreamed of turning double plays and smashing base hits and drawing walks on full counts. When I came to we were walking to Stephanie's house, who was the Peace Corps Volunteer who would be putting all of us up in Balakan. They had bought ice cream, and it was good. I showered in the cold water pumped from the river, and felt refreshed and ready. We had a few hours until first pitch, and Clarissa told us of her Peace Corps experience and connections.

"So I kind of planned your route for you through Azerbaijan," she said as she unrolled a small map of the country, "one of my best friends lives here, in Agdash, and you should really call up the Frantzes, in Kurdomir. They have air conditioning. Here's Tim McNaught's number in Baku, but he lives kind of outside Baku."

Clarissa planned our route perfectly, as it corresponded exactly with the route we had eyed out before. Lots of people to call, lots of inspiration. We drank cold, gravity filtered water, played a full size guitar, and finished the ice cream. Then it was time to go see how the ball carries through the warm evening air in Azerbaijan.

Some background:
Every summer the Peace Corps runs summer camps in Azerbaijan. Those who want to travel to the region that is putting on a given camp at a given time, and help the volunteer who is running it. Stephanie, who was posted in Balakan, was in charge of this one, and there were 8 or 9 volunteers who had assembled here to help her. This is what Clarissa was doing. Also, a few years ago some Peace Corps Volunteers made it their project to start a baseball, well, softball league in the country, and every new group of Volunteers has continued it. If they want, they coach teams in their town or region, and every year they travel across the country to participate in games and tournaments. For a lot of the children, it's the first time leaving their small village, and meeting children from other regions of their country. They have a lot of fun, and are producing better hitters than the A's minor league system seems to be doing. The children, boys and girls, were all excited about the game, and soon we were playing nine on nine.

I played pitcher and third, and batted 1 for 3 with a single. I was told by a 4 foot tall Azeri boy to, "pitch like a man". I struck him out. I got robbed on my last at bat, a long, soaring drive to left. I was aiming for a randomly placed, rusting watch tower. Jaco did really well: 2 for 2 with 2 triples, 2 runs and 4 RBIs. Nice work, Jake.

After the game, we goofed around for a bit with the children, played some guitar and were treated to a version of the Azerbaijan Eurovision Champion song. Then we went back to Stephanie's house, and ate real bacon and had real Chianti from Italy, brought by Matt, who had just been there. In the morning, we set off for Agdash, where we were to meet Becca, Clarissa's good friend who was living there.