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Invisible

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?

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!