Sunday, August 7, 2011

Baseball and Microbrews in Azerbaijan Part III: Baku, Crusher of Souls

Riding through the desert to Baku was like riding through a wind tunnel that passed through the sun itself before hitting your skin at 1000 degrees. It was hot and windy. So windy, that although we were actually descending to the Caspian Sea, we were going as slowly as if we were climbing great mountains. That's 7 km/h, which is a brisk walk. Downhill. Plodding along the desert we were. Shrubs would have provided us shade, had we been bugs. Yet had we been bugs we would not have seen the Caspian Sea, finally, stretching before us hazy and blue! When we hit the sea we turned North, and Borealis, the great Northern Wind himself redoubled his strength and blew even harder, slowing us down to 6, even 5 km/h. At least we were on the sea, right? Wrong! The Caspian south of Baku totally sucks! It's full of oil derricks and refineries and pipelines and gas stations and cars cars cars who don't give a damn about you. All this is hard to think about though when you're riding into a 4000 lightyear headwind. We did think about getting off our bikes and getting onto a bus, and we turned those electrical impulses in our head into electrical impulses in our muscles, and were soon standing in the aisle of a bus bound for Baku. What wind?

Our first day in Baku we went to the Embassy of Turkmenistan, to get our onward visa from Azerbaijan.

"The consul is on vacation, so there will be no visas issued until he returns."

"When does he return from vacation?"

"Two weeks, maybe three? I don't know."

I would at this point like to congratulate the Turkmen Ambassador to Azerbaijan on his excellent communication skills. He gets a Blue Ribbon at my Communications Faire, definitely.

On our second day in Baku we went to a travel agent who had been recommended to us by the very nice, efficient travel agency we had worked with in Tbilisi. We found him in a back alley, his office was marked with Olde English style writing stenciled in spray paint on the wall of adjacent buildings with arrows pointing to it. We entered his office which had two or three women sitting at desks on the ground floor, then a loft level above. One of the women called him on the phone. A male's voice from the upper level responded, and they continued talking on the phone even though they were in normal conversational range. Awkwardly, we were sent up to Anar, the agent. Anar had shifty eyes, and seemed worried all the time. He woefully asked us what we wanted from him. We told him that had had been recommended by a travel agent in Tbilisi, and that we were told that he could help us with our visas to China. He said, "hmm, yes", then spent the next hour making phone calls to "people at the embassy" and increasing the prices for various reasons. We debated over whether we could trust him, and if it seemed like he was telling the truth or just plain ripping us off. In the end, because we absolutely needed our visas to China, we gave him our passports and a lot of money. He told us that in 8 days we could come pick up our passports, and the visas would be there. Fine. The corruption was evident, and we did not feel good about what we were doing, but damn, we needed those visas and we saw no other way. Now we had to fill up 8 days in Baku. So we called up Clarissa's Peace Corps colleague, Tim McNaught.

We met Tim at "The Brewery". This is a microbrewery. Apparently some Austrians thought opening a microbrewery in Baku would be a good idea, the British oil workers would flock to it. They imported an entire brewery to Baku and trained an old Soviet engineer how to brew beer. Well, he brews fine beer, three kinds as well (Dark, Medium, Light). Even if the oil workers aren't quite flocking to it, the beer is hecka good. We took a tour, and drink fresh beer straight from the vat. That was cool. Also cool was Tim.

Tim is posted in Masazir, which is a suburb of Baku. His official Peace Corps job is working at an eye clinic, but because this doesn't entail too much work, he also spends time working with an economic think tank in Baku, and being a TV actor. I exaggerate. Tim was on TV a few times, and the Azeris apparently loved it. The first time, he played a few traditional songs on the saaz, not the tasty hop variety from the Czech Republic, but the stringed instrument from this part of the world. Tim said that for a few weeks after the show people recognized him on the street, and would dangle their right hand at their belly and hold their left hand out straight, as if playing a saaz. He laughed as he told us this, and his stories warmed our minds as the "Medium" warmed our bellies. We said goodbye for the night as he had to catch his bus back to Masazir, and made plans to meet again the next night.

We woke up, and had to change our living situation. We had been staying with a couchsurfer, but we had to leave there because he hadn't communicated at all with his roommates about anything, and it was becoming very annoying. So we made our way to Baku's only hostel. When we got there, a man in front jumped to his feet and said it was full, but lead us to his house, where we would pay the same rate. It later became clear that he was simply poaching this hostel's clientele, and taking their prospective guests to his house.

Dishonesty and lack of communication were big themes of our time in Baku. From Anar, the snakey travel agent to our couchsurfing host, it seemed like people would rather give you false information than no information. It's as if people are embarrassed to say, "I don't know," or "No, I can't help you". It quickly became very frustrating. And we still had a week left to kill in this place.

After 2 nights in this guy's house, Tim invited us to stay with his family in Masazir for 2 nights. We rode the 30 disgusting kilometers on the freeway to Masazir. Once we got there it was a paradise of relaxation. Tim's family was incredibly hospitable for letting us into their home in the first place. Tim gave us his room and the whole family slept in another room. We were again, like so many times before on this trip, completely humbled by the hospitality and warmth of others. The second evening there Tim, Jaco and I took a bus out to another microbrewery and then the Caspian, where I bathed, and marveled at the sensation of floating in water. After two mellow, relaxing days there, it was back to Baku, where we stayed with a friend of Tim's, Mohsen.

Mohsen is an architecture student from Tehran, who wanted to study abroad in Europe but couldn't get the visa, so he picked Azerbaijan instead. This made me feel silly for getting so frustrated at my own visa hassles, as I am just a tourist who wants to go visit these places. Nothing in my life really hangs on whether or not I get my China visa. It put things in perspective. Nonetheless, it was really frustrating not getting visas! Hopefully, we told ourselves, this time we'd get it. It was getting to about time to call up old Anar and see if he had our visas ready.

"Tomorrow," he said "and you have to come to the embassy. The consul wants to see you to make sure it's your passport." OK, that was fine, but it was frustrating that we'd have to wait another day. Just more contradicting information.

Our plan for leaving Baku was to take a boat to the other side of the Caspian Sea, to Kazakhstan now because we couldn't get a Turkmenistan visa. There is a ferry, but looking online and reading other travelers' accounts of taking it is very discouraging. This was one of the parts of the trip to which I was looking forward most, and missing it would be crushing. Finding the boat and when it leaves though, would be difficult, plus we couldn't even begin the process of a Kazakhstan visa because we didn't have our passports. Luckily, when Jaco was buying a kebab one day, a man bounced down with a baby on his back. He turned out to be Phil Cruz, Baku cycling extraordinaire, and extreme help to Nate and Jaco. We met him the next day and he rode with us literally all afternoon in the nasty heat looking for information on this ferry. The most progress we made was that the place to buy tickets was 10km or so away from the port. Phil's help was crucial, as he spoke fluent Azeri and knew the town well after 7 years living there. So we planned on going the next day to the ticket office, after meeting in the morning with Anar the rat to get our visas.

We walked into Anar's office at 9am, with plans on getting to the embassy at 10am. He said that the consul only wanted to see us, and everything would be fine. He picked us up in his black Benz, with expensive custom plates, and drove us to an office that said, "Chinese visas" and made up some story about some friend that I don't even remember. We continued to the embassy and parked, and waited for 30 minutes. We were waiting for his friend, and he wouldn't explain, and kept saying he'd be there in three minutes. Lies lies lies spewing from his mouth. We walked finally into the embassy, where his friend was cutting people in line and saying he had American passports. It was embarrassing. In his hand were our passports, and two unprocessed visa applications, the kind we had already filled out so many times in our previous attempts to get this visa. It was clear that they had not done any work with the embassy yet. They were simply hoping the money would work. Finally the consul came to our guy, and he refused to accept the application, because we were not residents of Azerbaijan, which was the whole reason we were paying Anar in the first place. He said he could get around that requirement. Liar.

To the least of Anar's credit, we got our money back, he is not a thief, unless you count the time wasted in Baku because of his inability and dishonesty as stolen time. I was livid. He drove us back to his office, but I couldn't stand to be in the car with him. I asked to be let out, and went to the hideous beach promenade they have recently built in Baku with new concrete and benches you aren't allowed to sit on. I paced angrily for a while, and contemplated the remaining options. I think my favorite one was riding back to Portugal. Jaco and I met back up again, I was calme, and we decided to buy plane tickets to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where we were able to get the remaining visas for our trip, including the China one in one day for the normal price. But I'm jumping ahead.

Baku was a city where we met liars, like Anar, and cheats, like the guy whose house we stayed in when we were looking for the hostel. The downtown shopping area is new, and it is difficult to find food. It is full of high-end clothing stores. The beachfront is ruined by the pollution of the oil industry, and the view is ruined by a tacky statue and oil derricks. It is hot, and the police poke you with their sticks when they see you lying in a bench in the shade. Sitting on the grass in the shade is out of the question, although Jaco managed to drink a whole beer on the grass without any problem. Nobody is reading any books in any of the parks. There's no chess anywhere. Even backgammon is hard to find. In the rush to develop, quantity has been achieved-there is a lot of new nice looking stuff-but there is a total lack of quality. I explained this to an Azeri youth, as I was writing about this in my journal. He came up to me in the park and asked, "Can you say happy birthday in Italian?" I said no, and he said, "Well, here it is," and showed me the word cached somewhere in his phone. "We're finding foreigners to say happy birthday in as many different languages as we can for our friend's birthday." I told him I would say it, but he would be better off finding someone who could actually speak Italian to say these words. I explained to him the difference between quality and quantity, using a continuum I had drawn in my journal to illustrate this. He laughed, opened his fancy camera phone and said, "OK, can you say it now?".

I could end there, but this post would be unfair to Baku if I didn't point out the tremendous people we met. Tim McNaught. When I worked in France, I only worked 12 hours a week, and my biggest problem was that I had too much free time. I struggled to fill up this free time, became bored, and slept a lot. I admire Tim immensely for how he has managed to use the free time that his Peace Corps schedule allows him, and for taking advantage of the many resources that he has. I hope to share an IPA with him in his hometown, the glittering, shimmering city on two rivers, the City of Roses, Tualatin, Oregon.

Mohsen Moghadam is Tim's friend who we stayed with for many nights, 5 or so in Baku. We met him for one night at a cafe with Tim, and we got along well. He offered to host us, and held true to his word, even though his studio was small and he was hard at work finishing a project for school. His help was so crucial, and I hope someday it will be easier for Iranians to get visas to the US and vice versa, and I can host him in my small studio somewhere.

Phil Cruz took an entire afternoon in the heat with us cruising all around Baku dealing with unfriendly ticket agents and dock workers. He rides like a man inspired. He has a full suspension free ride bike, and drops huge curbs and stairs and stops cars in their tracks, even in bicycle insensitive Baku. He had us over for drinks and hors d'oeuvres, and made phone calls for us to frantically try to extend our Azeri visas. May his baby daughter grow strong and healthy.

The one episode I forgot to mention in this post is the Green Bikers Club of Azerbaijan. They are a bicycle advocacy group who have got a lot of hard work ahead of them. Jeff, another Peace Corps Volunteer we met through Tim, invited us to their conference where we talked about our trip, and answered questions. It was a blast, and I wish them luck in their long battle to bring bicycles to Azerbaijan. Oil runs deep there.

And finally, none of this would have ever happened without Clarissa Chan's vast network of Azerbaijan Peace Corps friends. We were lucky enough to catch her for a couple nights in Baku, and tell her of our time between Balakan and Baku. She's working on the GRE now or something, which is way scarier than riding a bike over the Himalayas. Without these people in Baku, our time would have been absolutely MISERABLE. No visas, 11 days in a terrible city, and not even a single good time to show for it.

So we left. We put our bikes in boxes and flew away to Tashkent. I'm sitting in a brand new hotel lobby in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, watching a Russian play "El Condor Pasa" on a recorder with a bunch of puppets around him on TV.

We collected 3 visas in 6 days in Tashkent, and powered through Uzbekistan. It was hot. We took a side trip to Bukhara, where they have beautiful tilework on big buildlings. We stayed at a guesthouse in Samarkand through which passed 14 transcontinental cyclists. Suddenly we outnumbered the non-cyclists. Who's crazy now!