Post #675 I’ve Been to Baku, Have You?

October 6, 2019 at 10:37 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

During my “travel days” when I was lucky enough to see parts of the world most people don’t and experience cultures and foods I never knew existed, I got work for a few weeks in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan.  It’s located in the former USSR on the western shore of the Caspian sea.  It’s got a long rich history full of wars and take overs and I won’t go into it in any detail, but the different cultural influences are varied and unique.  It’s primary economy is based on oil and petroleum and due to that there is also a fairly large scientific and educational community.

We were there back in the early 2000s, and they were still feeling the impact of the break up of the USSR, but were coming out of it to a rising economy.  The city was large and bustling and crowded.  It was largely a Russian culture, but there was still a strong influence from Persia and the Jewish community.  Formula One racing had taken hold in a strong way and there were shops selling F1 paraphernalia everywhere.

We were working 8-10 hours a day and our weekends were sometimes work-filled so we didn’t get a chance to see a lot of the sites, but we did get to go to a series of restaurants around the area.  Our hotel was located on Fountain Square almost directly across the street from the only McDonald’s in the city (at the time though I’m sure there are likely more by now.  They spring up like rabbits.)  It actually made it easier to get cabs.  Since none of us knew the language nor could puzzle it out, we’d just say “McDonald’s” to the cabbie and we’d get to the hotel.

We were warned never to try to get a cab ourselves.  We either went through the hotel or the embassy guards to get them.  The joke was as soon as a son was born, they were given a driver’s license and a cab topper for their car.  Because there was no central cab authority, the honesty of the cab drivers could be suspect, and kidnappings and extortion were problematic.  It was the same walking the streets.  There was a vibrant and active night life every night of the week, but tourists could sometimes be targeted for theft.  The most popular method was for a crowd to separate tourists and “guide” the one to an alley or a nightclub to be fleeced.  It never happened to us, but we were careful to stay to well lit areas.

My hotel windows didn’t look out over the square but to the other side which I found more fascinating.  I was looking at the real town where the locals lived.  It wasn’t as dressy as the square, but it wasn’t dirty or poor looking.  One thing I noticed each morning is the locals came out about the same time (I recall it was around 6:30am) and used bundles of small, bushy sticks to clean and sweep the sidewalks and the streets in front of their buildings.  In just a few minutes, all litter and dirt was swept to the curb and picked up.  I imagined that once that was done, they went in and started breakfast and had coffee.

Near the seaside is the original city with its ancient walls and battlements.

We climbed to the top of the tower and looked at the sights.  Then we went to the markets, and on of my colleagues bought some antique rugs which he shipped home.  I’m not a rug person, but many of my colleagues were so he was happy to find some deals.  I wasn’t in the market for anything in particular and bought a set of nesting dolls for a friend, and a pashmina for my sister, which turned out to be so successful I wished I bought her two more.

The area near the hotel was definitely the touristy area and designed to be enjoyed throughout the day, but at night is came alive.

I walked for miles just staring and gawking.  The European influence was strong and the displays in the shop windows was fascinating.

My usual routine was to get home and change.  Sometimes, I’d eat at the hotel, but other times I’d wait till I walked through the area for a while.  I walked every night for a couple of hours.  I ate street food that everyone else was eating.  Or I’d stop at a restaurant and sit at a communal table and enjoy a thick stew with potatoes, or turnips, or beets, and beef or pork.  I even ate at McDonald’s a few times.  I’ve found that fast foods outside of the US seem to have a different flavor, more a local flair, and taste a little better.

One weekend evening, all three of us went to an upscale restaurant with a couple of people from the embassy.  It was a Russian restaurant, had a dark interior, and a large Russian woman in a tight purple sparkly dress wandering through the dining area crooning vampish songs in Russian (I think, I’m not a linguist.)  I noticed that she would stop occasionally to interact coquettishly with a patron.  At one point, while I was eating (pork chops with pickled cabbage and something else) she seemed to be right behind me since her voice was loud.  The others at the table were watching her, but I was more interested in my plate.  A few moments later, the guy next to me said, “You did an excellent job ignoring her.”

“Ignoring who?” I asked.

“The singer,” he replied, surprised.  “She was trying to get you to flirt with her.”

I glanced behind me but she was long gone.  “Oh, I didn’t realize she was there.”

Another time, we went to an restaurant that featured Mediterranean foods.  This was food I was familiar with and enjoyed a lot.  We spent a lot of time there relaxing and laughing.  We found out a couple of days later that my colleague’s credit card was double billed.  It took several weeks and the assistance of one of the local employees to get it corrected.

One of the poignant highlights of the trip was a small girl who hung out outside our hotel.  She was asking for money and for some reason, she took a shine to my colleague.  The two of them would banter words back and forth.  She spoke pretty good English.  She would be there every time we walked out, almost as if she knew his schedule ahead of time.  He’d give her the equivalent of $10 every time he saw her, but only after they teased each other for a few minutes.  She showed us where the locals went to have a good time, or good eats, or just enjoy the day.  On our last day there, we all pitched in and gave her about $50.

The hotel staff was very interested in making sure our stay was pleasant, but none more than the older woman who was head of the maid service.  She turned down our beds personally every night to make sure we were comfy and didn’t need anything.  She also put the chocolates on our pillows, and when she found out how much I enjoyed it, she started giving me three every night.

About a year after we were there, we found out that the local staff we had been working with had been replaced due to influence peddling.  Kind of sad.

As always,

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