Fire mountain

Saturday night in Baku. Very cold, too cold for snow but a definite hint of rain in the air. We’re going to see Yanar dağ, fire mountain. It’s about a 30 minute taxi ride from the centre and thanks to Ms M’s impressive command of Azeri, we negotiate a return fare of 30 manat – about €28. For this, our man in his lada will take us to the mountain, wait for us to warm ourselves by the flames, and then drop us back to town.

The journey out amidst the Saturday evening commute (and yes, Saturday is a working day for most people) could have been filmed for TV. Weaving in and out of traffic, avoiding potholes, and snaking around buses and trucks, our nifty lada ploughs ahead at bone-rattling speed. It’s quite the journey. We drive for what seems like ages into the hinterland, passing settlements and villages that are a far cry from the flash new apartment buildings in downtown Baku. Earlier that day I’d seen the new Hilton (not quite finished but nearly there) which is practically next door to the new Marriott and within walking distance of the new Four Seasons. Add to this concoction of starred accommodation, the Fairmont, the Park Inn, and many others and you can’t but ask yourself who’s coming to stay. Is it a question of ‘build and they will come’ or does the Azerbaijani government know more than they’re letting on? It seems like an inordinate number of beds for a city that has yet to produce a commercial-grade postcard. But hey, what do I know?

Back to the fire… and the mountain.

As far back as the thirteenth century, Marco Polo mentions fire spouting from the Abşeron Peninsula. When the drilling of oil wells reduced the pressure underground, most of them burned out. According to folklore, the fire at Yanar Dağ was started by a shepherd in the 1950s, who carelessly tossed aside a cigarette butt in the vicinity of a natural gas vent. The ten-metre stretch of ground has been on fire ever since.

It’s quite surreal. Picnic tables have been set up alongside it and a little çayxana (tea house) perches close by (it was closed the night we went but I am sure that in ten years’ time, this will be quite the tourist attraction; some entrepreneurial mind might even supply marshmallows!)  The heat is intense. Tiny blue flames flicker on the edge of the path working up to full flame as they slowly climb the hillock. We’d actually passed it in a the taxi thinking that it looked as if someone was burning rubbish in their back yard. Its grandiose pretensions to mountaindom are reminiscent of the movies starring Hugh Grant – The Englishman who went up a hill and came down a mountain. But it has a certain charm and the fact that it has burned through rain and hail and snow for nigh on 60 years is a miracle in itself. Definitely worth the journey.

Don’t confuse Armani with Armenia

Shopping, like most things I’ve found in Baku, comes in two extremes: very cheap or very expensive; Turkish tat (a change, albeit not a marked one, from Chinese tat) or designer labels. And it’s mostly very expensive. Every designer worth his or her salt has a shop, or two, in Baku. From Armani to Vuitton; from Tom Ford to Yves Rocher. And interestingly, these shops are not concentrated in one area – as they are in Budapest on either Andrassy or Fashion Street. Nope, they’re all over the place. On main streets, back streets, and high streets. And there are even designer shops for children.

Oil money is big money and translates in to fancy cars (did you know that Lexus makes a very posh-looking SUV?), fur coats, and fashion. The guide map lists a part of town that’s home to the oil millionaires’ mansions. I’ve yet to come across it but am half-thinking that it might be  a good day to see how the other half live. For your average Azeri, though, the good news is that the monthly gas bill will be just a couple of manats – less than €2. Electricity, of course, is another matter entirely.

I walked along Park Bulvar, along the coast of the Caspian Sea. No expense has been spared. It’s beautifully finished; every detail from the heavy ornate rubbish bins to the bronze sculptures and landscaped footpaths has been carefully accounted for. It was empty on Saturday, partly because of the day that was in it: the nineteenth anniversary of a particularly bloody massacre in Azerbaijan’s history – the massacre at Khojali.

No matter how you look at it, what happened in 1992 was bad. Very bad. Six hundred Azerbaijani innocents – men, women, and children – brutally murdered byArmenians.  It will probably never be known with any degree of certainty what instigated the massacre or what individuals were responsible for it. (I found an interesting site offering a view of both sides.) It would be practically impossible to forget about it, no matter how hard you tried. It was brutal. And it shouldn’t be forgotten.

What discomfits me though, is the perpetuation of xenophobia; rearing children to believe that all Armenians are evil. I’m not proposing a simplistic forgive and forget – that would be humanly impossible, given the brutality of what happened. But what is accomplished by fomenting hatred, I wonder? What do we accomplish anywhere in the world by passing our hatred and our prejudice from generation to generation without allowing them to make up their own minds?

I’m reading the famous Azeri book – Ali and Nino – written under the psuedonym Kurban Said in 1937. In the early chapters, Ali’s father counsels him: Do not forgive your enemies; we are not Christians. While I’m as far away as ever from understanding how Bakuvians think or how the Azeri people as a whole see life, I’m considerably closer to realising that there isn’t a simple explanation.

The juxtaposition of East and West; the gaping divide between rich and poor; the tug of war between Asia and Europe are underscored by a complicated past and an even more complicated future. On the edge of Fountain Square stands a beautiful old Armenian church. It’s boarded up, no longer in use. A daily reminder of what once was and what is looking less and likely to ever be again.


A couple of months ago, I thought Azerbaijan was a country on the other side of Serbia. Geography was never one of my strong subjects. I’m quite famous for my appalling sense of direction, so my faux pas is quite understandable, at least given my peculiar logic.

It was only last week that I realised exactly where it is – nestled close to Georgia and Armenia on the edge of the Caspian Sea. Steeped in history, religions, and rulers, and a former member of the USSR, Azerbaijan is now one of those fascinating places that seem to hover on the brink of that imaginary line between east and west. Fuelled by oil money, the capital, Baku, is undergoing a major facelift. Health and safety is non-existent. At best, you might have a lookout on the scaffolding that checks for pedestrians before his mate empties shards of brick and glass down on to the street, presumably to be swept up later.

Kerbstones are nearly a foot high – you literally climb on and off the footpath – those you can find, because they’re few and far between once you come off the main streets. Walking along the sides of the roads, competing with the traffic for space, is quite the battle, one I’m losing badly. I remember being in Bangalore some years ago and being terrified of the traffic. Lakshminaryana made me walk back and forth across a very wide and busy road six times without running. He told me that no-one would run me over. Pedestrians ruled. Not so in Baku. It’s a constant game of chicken. Quite the adrenalin rush. Current score: Vehicles 27. Mary 1. And that particular showdown left me reeling!

The Lonely Planet has this to say about Azeri mindset: Muslim yet beer-loving, Turkic yet Eurocentric, overwhelmingly hospitable yet plagued by a strong vein of Soviet-era suspicion. mmm…I can only assume that it was written by a man, or else the pendulum has swung towards suspicion rather than hospitality since that particular book was published. The minute I enter a shop, an assistant approaches and sticks to me like velcro. Hovering at my elbow, just looking. Always beside me. My smiles and ‘I’m just looking’ have no effect. I’m obviously not to be trusted or else customer service has been taken just a little too far along the attentive line.

While walking around the city yesterday, I was struck by how many men there are in Baku. And more peculiarly again, the women I did see all seemed to be carbon copies of each other. Ok – it’s bloody cold here and it could well have been that they all shopped in the same place, but there was an unsettling similarity between these heavily made-up, hennaed, long-coated women – a hardness that I’ve not come across before.

I keep thinking of Bangalore… walking down Mahatma Gandhi street one night, I commented to Lakshminaryana about men urinating on the side of the street. He told me that only foreigners notice because no man, while in the act, will make eye contact with anyone, and no self-respecting Indian will look his way, either. So, in effect, the peeing man is invisible. This is how I felt yesterday afternoon. Invisible. I had to pinch myself a couple of times to make sure I was awake and stopped longer than usual looking at my reflection in shop windows to make sure I was actually there. It was most peculiar. No-one made eye contact with me and I soon stopped trying to make eye contact with them. It was quite surreal. In the underground malls, those shop-lined passageways beneath the roads, people walked straight at me. I don’t think I’ve walked a straight line since I arrived in Baku.  This weaving and dodging at least keeps the blood flowing.  Did I mention how cold it is?

Baku beckons

I am awake when I wake up. My usual sleepy headedness is noticeably absent. I check my watch – 9 am. I’d slept in later than usual. And then I remember where I am. Baku. Azerbaijan. Three hours ahead of Budapest. I am still on schedule. I decide to get up but as I move, I feel the force of some invisible hand pushing me back onto the bed. And then I remember that I’m on my holidays. I don’t have to be anywhere until 3pm later this afternoon when I am to visit the Diplomatic Academy. Anyway, the lovely Ms Meddaugh doesn’t have Internet connection in her flat. And it’s raining. So what’s my hurry?

The drive in from the airport last night had reminded me a little of Bangalore and its chaotic driving. Battered Ladas complete with shiny new designer-brand SUVs for roadspace, in an amusing East meets West fight to the finish. They make Budapest’s rush-hour drivers look like pensioners on a Sunday drive. I counted three separate accidents and held my breath for minutes on end as the driver fast-forwarded through the mêlée. What struck me was the complete lack of any apparent order or system and yet, as in Bangalore, everyone seemed to know his place.

I lie still, listening to the noise outside. My room faces out onto a narrow, one-way street into which cars and trucks are released at traffic-light intervals. Somewhere down the road, they bide their time, waiting for the green light’s permission to move. And then, as if released from a starting box, they roar into Başir Safaroğlu Küg, pounding aggressively on their horns hoping the noise will somehow clear the road in front of them.  I time the intervals of quiet, strangely reminded of labor contractions. I am soon lulled back to sleep by their regularity.

I awake a second time to loud voices having an argument. I remember that there’s a market on the corner and imagine a delivery truck blocking the traffic and everyone in the vicinity adding their two cents worth. The language is strange. I know that people speak Azeri, Russian or English with those over 30 more likely to speak Russian and a little Azeri while the younger ones are more likely to have Azeri and English but little Russian. Such are the generations divided. The chap who drove me in from the airport last night has seen more than 60 Azeri winters and yet he speaks only Russian. As the voices drift through my window, I think its Azeri. Not that I know enough to tell the difference – it just doesn’t sound like Russian. They eventually sort it out and the blessed quiet resumes.

I awake a third time to the sound of music – a strange type of music. The muezzin is issuing the adhān, the Islamic call to prayer. It is both pervasive and haunting. I finally get out of bed and venture out on to the balcony expecting to see a series of mosques dotting the skyline and crowds heading in their direction answering the call. I look up and down and can’t see anything that remotely resembles a church of any sort. The tannoyed music seems to be seeping from the walls. And then, in the distance, I catch a glint of gold. It’s dark and dreary outside, overcast. But to my right, way in the distance, I see what might just be a minaret. Baku beckons.

Diplomatic persons

The flight from the Ukraine to Azerbaijan was about half full. The first transit bus had disgorged its passengers and we had taken seat, expecting the doors to close at any minute. The overhead compartments were full, not of suitcases and bags, but of heavy winter coats and big fur hats. It was -12°Cin Kiev that afternoon.

I had one of the back rows all to myself and had my laptop out ready to boot up. Flights are no longer an opportunity to catch up on some much-needed sleep. Until I learn how to say ‘no’ and mean it, I will be forever looking for a few extra hours in a day.  The flight to Baku was earmarked to copy-edit a couple of a chapters from a book written by a gal from Belarus… a favour.

One more bus pulled up outside and about a dozen men in greatcoats and hats came aboard. I immediately pegged them as oil workers. It may well have been that flying into Kiev that morning from Budapest, I had been forcibly reminded of Alaska – of Valdez – and the oil industry and its accompaniments were on my mind. The white expanse of snow punctuated by wooden houses and bright flashes of colour as pick-ups navigated the icy roads. It was very similar to Valdez – without the water and the mountains and the trailer parks…

I had no doubt in my mind. The men were big and burly and dressed and pressed in street clothes that looked as if they’d been carefully closeted until now. Huge hands, broad shoulders, and loud voices – the sum of the parts was greater than the sum of the whole. They were oil workers and they looked as if they were heading home on leave. As they tried to fit their bags and coats into the already crammed overhead compartments, it became clear that they operated as a unit. One elderly, rather distinguished man, pointed to various compartments with a beautifully carved walking stick, instructing two of the men as to what could go where. Another was sent off to check with the cabin steward if they could use the empty back rows for their bags. A fourth was set to work repacking coats already stored.

They were carrying huge boxes that looked as if they contained 5-litre bottles of some unpronounceable liquor. So, maybe they were going on rather than coming off.  Yes, it made more sense that they were going back to work. The Azeri economy runs on oil and they were heading towards Baku. Happy that I’d figured it all out, I went to work.

We had no sooner taken off than most of the empty back rows had been claimed. The shortest of these giants stretched out and promptly fell asleep. Loud snores, grunts, and heavy breathing melded into one and took on an almost orchestral note that blended nicely with my percussionist keyboard tapping.

Later, as I entered the immigration all at Baku, I saw three signs: Foreign Passports, Azerbaijan citizens, Diplomatic Persons. I took my place at the back of a long, slow-moving queue, wishing, not for the first time, that I had a diplomatic passport. Then, as if from nowhere, my boys appeared en masse, and stood in the Diplomatic Persons line. I did a double take. Yes, all 12 of them, including la director with his wonderfully carved stick. Diplomats? Surely not! No way.  As a host of illusions shattered noiselessly around me, I wondered… mmmm, one doesn’t have to be a diplomatic person to be a diplomat!

Behind closed doors

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception – or so said Aldous Huxley, a man who died before I was born and a man I’d very much like to meet, if for no other reason than for him to explain my fascination with doors.

Someone commented quite recently that I never take photos of people. I don’t like posed portraits and I feel that taking someone’s photo without asking them first is quite invasive. And if you ask them, they invariably pose and we’re back to the portrait thing. This comment prompted to me to take a look at what I see when I have my camera; if I’m not shooting people, then what I am shooting? What are my obsessions? One is flowers behind bars and another, oddly enough, is doors. Judging by the number of photos of doors (sometimes half a dozen of the same one from different angles, and in different light) I would seem to have a bit of a door obsession going on.

Zagreb, Croatia

I have vague memories from my TV days of quiz shows where you could pick what was behind one of three doors, so perhaps my preoccupation has something to do with the endless possibilities that lie behind a closed door. Maybe it’s something to do with that feeling of exclusion – of being on the outside – waiting for a knock to be answered or waiting for the key to get in. And then the ensuing feeling of inclusion and belonging when you do manage to get behind it all. Or perhaps it’s the secrecy. My parents’ generation wisely cautions that one never knows what goes on behind closed doors. What might seem enviable from the outside looking in, could be light years removed from reality.

Wakkerstroom, South Africa

Until you actually open the door, you’ll never know for sure what’s behind it. Until you take that blind leap of faith and open that door, you’ll always wonder what might have been. And even if what’s behind the door is not what you’re looking for, or anything close to what you expected to find, the adrenaline rush alone is worth it! That deep breath before the ‘here goes nothing… and everything’ is probably the sweetest one you’ll ever take.

Then again, maybe it’s not the doors I’m obsessing about at all… maybe it’s just the colours!

Notes to self

I have spent the last ten days in a room with 16 people who travelled from Abu Dhabi, Austria, British Virgin Islands, Congo, Grenada, Hungary, Malta, Ireland, Libya, Sierra Leone, Sweden, Switzerland, USA, Venezuela, and Zambia. Despite our varied backgrounds, we are all students enrolled in a Master’s program in contemporary diplomacy.

That I learned a lot about diplomacy is a given. That I learned a lot about other countries and cultures goes without saying. That I learned a lot about myself is surprising.

In my first simulated diplomatic experience, I represented the Irish government and faced my first media interview. For the real me, being on stage with a microphone is one of the best legal highs I can get. I’m an active member of Budapest Toastmasters and well versed in the art of impromptu speaking; I was prepared. What I hadn’t bargained for was the relentless onslaught of questions and the merciless way in which the journalist exploited my weaknesses. He asked me to defend a recent EU study showing Ireland’s problem with underage drinking. He asked what we, as a government, were doing about it. No sooner had I launched into an explanation of our alcohol awareness campaign than he devoured me with the ferocity of a cocoa junkie who finds chocolate on a health farm.  Why were we only now taking action? Why hadn’t we taken responsibility years ago? I knew I should calmly argue my point, be firm, and give the party line. That was my job. But before I could marshal my thoughts, he changed tack. Did I think Ireland had racial prejudices?  My mouth dropped open. The speaker in me frantically searched for a hook, something on which to hang a coherent response – hell, any response! I was drowning. And then I heard myself say, quite forcefully:  Yes! Yes! The collective intake of breath in the room silently screamed: No! No! Wrong answer. But there was no going back. Note to self: Be mindful that armchair politicians rarely sit in the hot seat.

Multilateral negotiations

In the next simulation, having been summarily dismissed from the Irish Government, I found myself representing South Africa in multilateral negotiations at a working group on food security. Fourteen countries were represented, with Hungary (the current President) speaking for the EU. I had been given instructions from my Capitol regarding negotiation and defence objectives. I knew what I had to accomplish. We went through the draft agreement and made our initial representations.  It soon became clear that somewhere in the next 72 hours, each country would have to give and take. We moved from negotiating as separate states to finding strength in numbers and quite soon it devolved into a classic case of them and us: the big guys and the little guys. Semantic arguments funnelled their way politely through the Chair. I would never have believed that so much could hang on a compromise about the choice of verb. Inch by inch concessions were made. Envoys travelled back and forth between the two sides to bargain and cajole. Deals made over coffee were reneged on over tea. Nothing much had been gained. Note to self:  Compromise, like hollow-centred chocolates, may look good but often lack substance.

Bilateral negotiations

When the South African foreign ministry suggested early retirement, the next simulation saw me representing the USA, facing off against Egypt in a bilateral negotiation. This was more like it. I was in the driver’s seat; the big shot. I was already savouring the sweet taste of success.  With only two of us, it would be so much easier to come to an agreement. Again I got my instructions from my Capitol as to what I could and could not do. And once again, my expectations were far removed from reality. While I may have had might on my side, I faced intractable opposition. This time I gave away not just a couple of chocolates, but the whole box! Note to self: The ‘and’ in ‘give and take’ is there for a reason.

Unilateral negotiations

When it’s just me in the room, negotiating with or talking to myself, I do fine. No stress, no pressure, no instructions. Finally, I’d found my niche. But while I successfully negotiate with myself all day every day and have even been known to get my own way on occasion, I had to face the ugly truth. When defences are down and carelessness creeps in, when emotions leapfrog over reason and rationale, when mental acuity is diluted by exhaustion, I would gladly trade it all for a bar of chocolate.

First published in the Budapest Times 14 February 2011

New life in old art

Back home in Ireland, in Carrickmacross, they’re famous for their lace. It’s a tradition that dates back to the 1820s apparently and from what I know of it, the lace is made with a tiny hook, a little like a crochet needle. On Gozo, the Gozitons use an imhadda (pillow) or what the Maltese call a tribu (from the Maltese word tarbija for baby) complete with bobbins and pins. But it wasn’t always so. As far back as the sixteenth century, they, too, used needles. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the bobbins arrived from Genoa. To watch someone at work is fascinating. The pattern is traced and stuck to the pillow, the thread held in place by pins. Depending on the intricacy of the pattern, the lacemaker could be dealing with 30, or 40 or even 100 bobbins. Just thinking about how they keep track of what goes where boggles the mind. The finished piece has no seams and the work itself take patience.It’s used in prisons and mental institutions for therapy and I can well imagine how hours and hours of bobbin work would either kill you or cure you.

I had the good fortune to meet Consiglia Azzopardi who teaches lacemaking at the University of Malta on Gozo. Author of a couple of books on the subject and now working on her thesis, she is determined to revive the craft on the island. When the factories came, and women went out to work, they no longer had time for lace. But such is their commitment to reviving the art, lacemaking is now a compulsory subject at the Government trade schools, and has even attained Diploma status at the university.

Because it takes so much time, it can’t be billed out at usual commercial rates –  who would pay for it? But when you think of it as an original work of art, that puts it in a different light. Apparently there’s been a surge of late for black silk stoles and shawls. Tempting? Pieces can be commissioned from the cooperative – but you shouldn’t be in a hurry as they can take up to a year to make. But there’s nothing like planning ahead. I have to admit to being sorely tempted. I quite like the idea of an heirloom, but then dread to think what uses my creative nephews would find for my Goziton shawl.

Who’s to blame?

Do I need to drag myself, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century, or can I stay in my self-enforced state of denial, at odds with planners everywhere? I’m all for progress but I’m also for preserving the past. I detest new developments and yet I have have enough sense to know that when my building was built in 1896 it was new to someone, just as the newly built apartment blocks behind me will be old to someone in 100 years (if they last that long). Would I rather see a historic city or town alive or dead? Alive, of course. Would I rather see buildings still in use than abandoned to rats and litter? Of course I would. So why then is the Fort Chambray development coming between me and my sleep?

That building you see in the background is the original barracks built in the mid-eighteenth century. The two on either side, the ‘tastefully’ designed new development. In its heyday, the original fort housed 250 soldiers and a small hospital. It grew in size during the Crimean War and in its latter years was both a civilian mental hospital and a leprosy unit. All a far cry from this recent development which oozes money; the views alone are worth a king’s ransom.

Outside the actual fort itself, remnants of the old cemetery can still be seen. The remains were removed in 1991 and reburied elsewhere. Yet in the base of the crumbling walls some of the original headstones shine brightly in the winter sun.  We climbed down and waded through thick bush and marshy ground for a closer look. A handful of stones marked each one of the four walls. The inscriptions dated from 1895 and 1898, each one more poignant than the last. Lance Corporals, their wives, and their children, immortalised in stone. Above these walls, inside the Fort, the development nears conclusion. Coffee-tabled balconies, curtained windows, and the occasional car testify that someone was home. But for all this progress, walls have been destroyed. The original entrance gate has been closed off and a new imitation built. One could argue that it has been designed sympathetically. The colours, the shapes, all blend in. But sitting as this new-build does on  history, with so much of the original barracks still standing, I have to wonder why there couldn’t have been a little more restoration and a little less renovation. 

Maybe it’s me. Maybe I simply need to get with the programme. Perhaps if I had a couple of million to spare, I’d be happy to spend my evenings looking out over the Maltese Archipelago, my view unobscured. Maybe I should start looking to the future instead of clinging to the past. Maybe…maybe not.