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.


  1. Pitcher, eh? What were your stats? How many Ks? How many walks? ERA? I like the mental image of y'all eating an ice cream cone with the border guard. That sounds like a picture I'd frame.

  2. yo! crazy...Clarissa's friend in Baku, Tim McNaught, is a friend of mine! A fellow Timberwolf from Tualatin High School in the SW Portland suburbs! Shit, crazy! Please say hello to him and talk about how you both know me! wow. Tim is a great guy and I think you'll all have a nice time together.

  3. Your GPS trking shows you've gone a long way since azrbaijan. Really cool.