Thursday, January 8, 2009

OK - not quite the trip from hell. But not very pleasant either.

I returned last night from Ganca, a harrowing seven-hour trip. Why was it harrowing? Where do I start?

Perhaps the first place to start is that yesterday was the Muslim holiday of Ashura. (I mentioned this in a previous post.) Nearly all commercial activity was closed until 2 p.m., and not much happened after that either. Among the activities affected was the transport between Ganca & Baku. Buses ran, but the regular fleet of vans that shuttles between the cities was absent. I had an appointment on Thursday, and I really didn't want to take a bus that got me into Baku at about 4 a.m., so I opted for the outrageously expensive option of 50 manat (about $60) for a private vehicle, which I shared with two men.

The first leg of the journey was fine. I'm used to the maniac style of driving here. But we unexpectedly stopped in a small city south of Ganca, where the driver was looking for something.

It turns out, he was looking for another driver, who was taking us the rest of the way. A nice, older gentleman with a big fur hat, he seemed competent enough. I settled into my seat and prepared for a quick trip home.

This was a mistake.

The first indication of trouble was the sound of a coughing engine. I was to get very familiar with this sound over the next six hours. The driver - Karim - stopped, swore a little, opened the hood, fiddled with the engine. Gunned the engine. The car filled with gasoline fumes. The engine started, roughly. He gunned it again and it ran a little more smoothly. He swore again. He slammed the hood of the car & we started again.

This process was repeated at least nine times over the next six hours. Sometimes the interludes lasted a couple of minutes. Sometimes 10 minutes. Sometimes he stopped by the side of the road. Sometimes he stopped in the rare gas station. I have an appetite for adventure, it's true, but I really didn't relish the new experience of being stranded on a cold, dark highway in Azerbaijan. Hence each of these interludes provoked some anxiety, which I treated with a strong dose of acceptance. I didn't know what was going to happen, and until any potential disaster actually occurred, there was no point worrying about it.

As it happened, as the journey progressed I began to worry more about the driver and less about the car. When we were perhaps two hours from the city, the road split, with one side going north to the interior and the other going to Baku. He took the road away from Baku. I attempted to be calm, and asked him - "Oh, so this is a different way. A short cut?"
He said yes, and then - when the road rapidly deteriorated, turned around and took the road to Baku.

"You were right," he said.

Perhaps this acknowledgement should have been gratifying, but it was not confidence instilling.

Later, as we rolled ever closer, the road split again. This time, he opted to take neither choice, instead driving right toward a median between the two roads. This time, I did not contain myself.

"What are you doing?" I asked, using the familiar form of the verb.

He did not answer, but he did direct the car onto the right road to Baku.

After this, I did not allow myself the luxury of closing my eyes. Later, I wondered whether the fact that he wore a seat belt was, in fact, a bad sign.

Nonetheless, it appeared that our progress was inexorable, so when he stopped near the outskirts of the city to thoroughly wash the car, I could not help remarking to another passenger - "It seems like he just doesn't want to arrive."

This passenger didn't speak Russian too well, but he also was alarmed by the behavior of our driver, and when Karim got back in the car, the passenger began to berate him in Azeri. I don't understand much Azeri, but the gist of what he said was: The bus only takes six hours - and this is taking about seven. What the hell are you doing?

I couldn't have put it better myself.

Nonetheless, suddenly I was recognizing buildings, and realized that we were very near the center, very near my dwelling. It was also very clear that the driver had no idea of how to get around Baku. We passengers gave him directions, and when we were within half a mile of my apartment, I insisted that he stop the car. I could walk from here, I informed him.
He seemed grumpy - but he stopped the car, and opened the trunk to get my bag out.

"Bye," he said, somewhat rudely.

"Good luck!" I said, very relieved to be back on familiar turf.

I made the rest of the way back to my apartment without incident, and walked in the front door almost exactly seven hours after the journey had started - a journey which one of the other passengers had told me at the start would last about four hours.

I drew two principal morals from the experience.

1. Never expect to get what you pay for.
2. Be glad after any journey that you arrive safely.