Istanbul airport is one of the more pleasant airports I pass through from time to time. Pleasant - but of course not cheap.
At the moment - I write from this airport - with a free wireless connection. (In most airports I've been in - if it's available at all - it's no free.) I'm on my way back to the States for a few weeks. So my reporting from Azerbaijan will take a hiatus of a few weeks.
I rode back to Baku this afternoon, a rollicking and rapid ride in a taxi that jolted along the road at an average speed of 120 km an hour. Perhaps faster. Our driver took the task of conducting us to Baku as some sort of incessant contest, attempting to push the other vehicles off the road with his front bumper.
In other words, he was a fairly average taxi driver.
Roughly half way on the road between Lenkoran and Baku, we stopped for tea and I sat with the four other men. The driver and one of the passengers spoke some Russian, so we chatted a little. Naturally, about American politics. Obama provokes a lot of curiosity here. Is he really an American? How can that be? What a funny name? I answered their questions - and gave my abbreviated lecture on America & how Americans are white, brown, black, yellow, red & maybe green too.
The fact that Obama is black is strange for them, because there are very few Africans in Azerbaijan. But - I got the feeling that some of the men liked the idea that his father was raised a Muslim.
On my last night in Lenkoran, I was invited to an Azerbaijani wedding.
Invited may not be the right verb. “Dragged” is more accurate. I really wasn’t in the mood for a big party - but of course - that’s what I got.
The wedding was very large and very loud. Lots of food. Lots of dancing. Lots of drink. We got there about 10 p.m. and the party was in fully swing. My friend said a few words to the father of the bride, and soon the waiters came to our table, bringing bottles and dishes of the famous lavangi chicken and fish, the kebabs, and other delicious examples of Azerbaijani cuisine.
It was a fine way to spend my last night in the city. The December climate in Lenkoran is damp and cold, but the people are very warm.
(Above is a photo of the market in Lenkoran. Note all the beautiful apples.)
Today is Qurban Bayram, a Muslim feast day. As I understand it, the motivation behind the holiday dates back to Abraham, when he sacrificed a ram rather than his son on the orders of God. The meat should be distributed to the poor.
So, you can guess the fate of this sheep, tethered to a tree in downtown Baku. Shashlik by tonight.
Some people - OK, many Americans - assume that all the world is just dying to get this thing called democracy. It’s just big, nasty dictators that get in the way. Having lived for a few years now in countries that did not have a tradition of representational democracy, I can testify that it’s not quite this simple.
Yes, there are big, nasty dictators who do repress democratic movements. But - there are plenty of people for whom democracy - as they understand it - doesn’t hold much appeal.
I met one of them last night.
Perfectly ordinary fellow. We had a good conversation when the van we were riding from Ganca to Baku made its ten-minute rest stop somewhere on the long road. Obviously, I was a foreigner, although I spoke Russian. So, I faced the normal questions. Where are you from? What are you doing? I answered the answers truthfully. I’m an American, teaching journalism here. This fellow understood that because I was a journalist, I was probably for a free press and therefore a democrat.
“Democracy,” he sniffed. “It’s a bad idea. I’m against it.”
I did not feel inclined to convince him of its merits. What was the point? I wasn’t even really all that interested in why he opposed democracy. He had his opinion, and he was entitled to it.
But we talked a little about what he does, his background. He’s a truck driver, working for an energy company. Before, in Soviet times, he had a good job, and he still has a job. But I’m sure he looks around him and sees lots of people who have suffered in the transition from the Soviet Union. Or - maybe he equates democracy with the ethnic violence that was unleashed when the Soviet system collapsed. I didn’t enquire. There are so many reasons to oppose what he understands as democracy, whatever the merits I think the system has.
I arrived back in Baku at an ungodly hour, and in the afternoon went out to replenish my supplies. At the market where I shop, extensive changes are underway. Under the same roof they now are selling everything from notebooks to pants, along with the cheese, nuts, vegetables, and fruit that were sold before. The guy from whom I buy cheese and eggs joked with me.
“It’s perestroika,” he said, referring to the renovations. ("Perestroika" literally means "rebuilding" in Russian.)
I met up today with one of our former students from the Baku journalism program. She’s living now in Baku, working as a poorly paid journalist. We chatted about friends and what they’re doing - and then about what she’s doing. She wanted to get some of her articles translated into English - not an easy task, really. My friend really has some interesting work, and it reminded me of the tangled knot of problems this country faces.
One example. Last year, the government agency in charge of education decreed that all primary school students needed uniforms. But - the tender for providing these uniforms was not awarded competitively, so not surprisingly the uniforms were expensive and shoddy. Because they are so expensive, many families face additional hardships, outfitting their children for school.
So - again we have a decision made to benefit inside cronies that directly harms the welfare of ordinary Azerbaijanis. This is true in so many sectors of the economy. The monopoly on cement - held by a government insider - forces higher building costs - which again affects the whole economy. There is even a government monopoly on the import of shoes. I personally know two people who were forced out of business because of this monopoly. Who benefits from these monopolies and uncompetitive tenders? Government insiders. But because the government is not run democratically, there is no systematic way to cleanse the “rent takers,” as they are called in political science. Sure - one government official might fall from favor and lose his comfy post, but he will be replaced by an official that will almost certainly be or become equally corrupt.
My friend’s article was published in one of the few independent newspapers. But changing the pattern of corruption will take more than a few newspaper articles.
(Above is a picture of the Kepez Hotel, mentioned in the previous post. Not scenic in any sense -but a remarkably good example of Soviet architecture.)
Last night as I was walking back from class, I gazed up at the Kapez Hotel, a hulking Soviet-era building, a gray box. One room was lighted from inside. On a whim, I decided to enter the foreboding building and inquire about the cost of a room.
The lobby was empty except for an older woman behind the “administration” desk. How much is a room?
“15 manat,” she answered.
This is about $18, so the price was attractive and suspect.
“Do the rooms have their own showers?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied, somewhat miffed. “But there’s only cold water.”
I decided to keep the hotel I have for the moment. My only complaint with that place is the huge flock of pigeons roosting directly above my room. -----
My attitude toward taxis is similar to my attitude toward flying in airplanes. Yes, it’s inherently dangerous, and yes, it’s necessary sometimes. I suspend anxiety, and just assume that once I’ve made the decision to get into the car, I’m entrusting my life to the taxi driver or to God.
But, sometimes even I get a little nervous.
The taxi driver I met today was very nice. Even spoke some English, because his mother was an English teacher. We talked about the US elections. I said that Obama's policy would certainly be more peaceful and sensible than Bush's. He agreed. He hated war, after serving five years as a soldier in Nagorno-Karabakh.
My driver had charm - but he had no brakes to speak of. He used the down shift and coast method of stopping. Which is often fine, but when he discovered that the authorities had erected a new traffic light, he had to swerve into oncoming traffic in order to avoid hitting cars stopped for the light.
After about ten minutes of riding with him, I commented that his brakes needed repairing. I’m not a terribly conscientious car owner, but brake repairs are one point of maintenance that I don’t neglect.
Later, he said he was looking for a new car, which is probably why he’s not repairing his current taxi. It’s 35 years old, he said.
“Good for you,” I said.
As it turned out, as we were about a mile from my destination, he swerved to the side of the road and stopped.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Out of gas,” he said.
I walked the rest of the way.
(Here are some pictures from today. Swans in the central park. A ruined Soviet building. Funny how quickly these buildings can decay!)
I'm back in Ganca, the place where I began my road trips late in the spring. It is not much different. Some of the buildings that were under construction when I was here are complete - and empty. The building phenomenon is not limited to Baku. High rises sprout in the provincial cities too. Who buys these expensive apartments? Some wealthy residents of Baku buy them for second homes. Ganca, after all, isn't that far from some beautiful pastoral areas. And doubtless some of the units are built for speculative or money laundering purposes.
In any case, it's nice to be back here. The city has a relaxed feel in general. Of course, I am more obvious as a foreigner - but I'm used to that now.
Pictured here are the old mosque in the central park, the central plaza (note the large picture of Heydar Aliyev), and a newly constructed apartment building facing the plaza.