Monday, March 31, 2008

How Much Would You Pay For Me?

You have to admire the creativity of a dude that is willing to ask three foreigners "How much will you pay for me?" in less-than-stellar English because his girlfriend (who is sitting at the next table) told him to.

Julian, Jeve, and I were sitting at Pizza Holiday when this guy comes up and asks us for our support because he is with his girlfriend. The following conversation ensued:

"My girlfriend sells me for any price."
"My girlfriend wants sell me. You pay what price?"
"Wait. Your girlfriend wants to sell you and is trying to find out how much money she could make?"
"Ok. What are you offering us? What are your skills? Can you cook?"
"I'm a doctor."
"A doctor, cool. So you can perform free surgeries?"
"Yes. I can do that."
"Wonderful. That is increasing your price."
"Ok, so how much you pay?"

After a moment's deliberation, I blurted out, "One-hundred thousand manats!"

His girlfriend seemed impressed. It was perhaps the most random thing that has happened to me in this country. Given the inherent creativity, I was glad to play along.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Baku -> Tbilisi

The Famed Midnight Train to Georgia

Georgian Customs Declaration Form

The train ride was fairly standard. 11 hours to the Azerbaijan side of the border, a one hour wait there, another 30 minutes to the Georgian side of the border, a 2 hour wait there, then finally a 2 hour jaunt from there to Tbilisi. They say the best bet is to take a taxi from the Georgian side of the border to circumvent much of the waiting.

To our surprise, the Georgian customs declaration form was completely in Georgian. If you've ever seen Georgian script, you'll know that it is as indecipherable as Arabic. One author described it as "paperclip" because each letter looked like bent paperclips. All we were told was to write our name, passport number, nationality, and what we were bringing into the country. I have no idea what the other 15 questions were asking.

Finally we rolled into warm Tbilisi at about 11:30. The first thing you notice is that the train station (a carbon copy of Warsaw Central) is simply a shell that looks like it has been bombed out. The second thing you notice is that Georgia is most certainly not Azerbaijan. Here it rains money, there it rains campaign posters symbolizing five promises made by the current president. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, posters don't buy you new apartment blocks or BMWs in the garage.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Impulse Travelling

Some say it's the finest way of travelling. I say it's the only way of travelling.


Take today as an example. I just happened to be perusing the airBaltic website for cheap flights out of this oily realm. Imagine my surprise when I saw the outbound flight to Riga priced at 20 Euros and the inbound flight priced at 30. It was too good to be true (taxes ended up being almost twice the price of both flights).

Such deals don't come around too often, I concluded. So instead of making sure I could get the necessary two days off, I became impulsive like a recent Canadian lottery winner at a Tim Horton's. Three clicks and a couple of forms later, my itinerary was set.

The destination this time is Estonia. It's about time I checked out the 3rd and final Baltic state. I'll be off May 15th and returning on the 18th.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Midnight Train to Georgia

Back in three days.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Gobustan is a city just south of Baku. It's famous for rock paintings from 30-40,000 years ago, "if you trust the foreign experts," as our guide put it.

One of the cool references made was to a particular method of killing animals in the stone age: forcing them to jump off a cliff. Our guide mentioned that native North Americans also used this technique. I mentioned that Canada has a famous historical site aptly named "Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump." Such a name has not been given to the same site here. They seem to be a little more politically correct.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Novruz (700th Post)

Spring is in the air. In this country, that means a 9-day vacation, jumping over fire, and little kids leaving their touques on your doorstep in the hope that you will fill them with sweets.

While you all sit there stewing in your inherent jealousy of my 9 days off, let me tell you a little bit about the holiday.

Its roots lie a long, long time ago (back in the BC period). People used it as a way to celebrate the renewal of life that this time of year represents. And instead of worshipping a god or other deity(ies), people worshipped the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. Since Azerbaijan is the self-proclaimed "Land of Fire," that element plays a big role in celebrations.

On the Tuesday before the 21st of March (and the three preceeding Tuesdays as well), fires are lit on almost every street. People line up awaiting their turn to take the leap of faith. Just prior, you must utter a few sentences, purportedly releasing all of the bad spirits from your soul. You literally ask, "Fire, burn away all the bad spirits."

Another cool tradition is the "trick or treat" variation. You'll be sitting at home and all of a sudden the doorbell rings. You open the door and see a touque sitting on your doormat. Your first thought is, "Cool, a free touque (a pretty cool gift for a Canadian)." In fact, you're supposed to take the touque, fill it with sweets, nuts, or fruit and leave it back on the doormat. After you close the door, the kid will reappear, take the touque, and run away gleefully.

Some other smaller traditions include a candle race where you light enough candles for the number of people in the room. Each person then makes a wish. If their candle burns out first, their wish will come true faster. There is also an egg cracking game similar to the wishbone breaking. Two people each have an egg in their hand. You then try to break the other person;s egg by hitting the top. Then the other person tries to break your egg by hitting the other end.

Happy Novruz, everyone!

91 and Counting...

My Grandma (middle) turned 91 today.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sunday Hamam

Knowing that the 300-yr-old hamam will probably still be there next week, we ventured deep into the alleyways in search of surrogate sauna facility. I had spotted one earlier in the week that looked promising so I suggested that we try it.

And what a great choice it was. We were treated to a dry and wet sauna, plus a amply-sized cold pool in the middle of the giant bathing room. I had played soccer earlier that day, so plenty of time was spent in said cold pool.

The most notable difference was indeed the attention paid to covering the genital area. A few of the men sauntered around in their birthday suits, seemingly unfazed by anyone sizing them up. Others showered like they were alone in their own home.

"I'll keep my shorts on, thank you very much."


After two months, a new passport issued in Ankara, seven trips to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, endless frustration, and a tidy sum of money, I finally have my year-long, multi-entry visa.

Georgia, here I come.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


A co-worker asked for my pizza dough recipe, his wife makes it, the mothers of another co-worker and his fiance find out that said wife made it and immediately ask for the recipe. I get a message from the fiance of my co-worker telling me all this. "Azeri women are jealous," she says.

I guess if one wife is making it, all the other wives want to make it as well.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sean Connery's Azeri Twin

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Azeri Hospitality

The following conversations take place in Russian.

"Can I borrow a pen?"
"There's a store over there. Go buy your own pen," answered one of the women at the post office.

After sitting down and writing on the back of my postcard with my Swiss army knife pen...

"Are you sick?" I asked the other woman who was visibly ill.
"Get well soon."
"Thank you."
"I want to send this postcard to Canada."
"Ok, everything looks right with the address and the stamps."
"Just put it in the box on your way out."
"Ok. Get well."
"Thank you."

Baku Skies

Friday, March 07, 2008

Luna Park

Home to the Alfred Nobel's Azerbaijan mansion, Luna Park is a spectacle one has to see to believe.

Perhaps that would be the first line to an article written about the venerable Soviet 1985. Luna Park is truly an oddity. A place where families would come for some fun on a Saturday afternoon. A place where you could get your thrills bumping into each other in little cars. A place that we decided to go to at 8:30 pm on a Thursday night.

The park is home to none other than a peddle monorail that runs a small circuit around part of the grounds. Pay 1 Manat ($1.20), ascend about twenty-five feet, and you find yourself sitting in a levitating version of the peddle-boat. In short, it's brilliant. What better way to get exercise than to cruise around the track, revolution after revolution? That is until you emerge from the safety of the collection area and realize just how little is stopping you from plunging to the earth. I was reassured by one of the park workers that the ride was only two years old and was indeed safe.

For whatever reason, we decided to get on this ride that worked like a pendelum, except it did a full revolution. It was all fun and games until, on the last revolution, it stopped at the apex with us dangling upside down. The blood flooded to my face. I remember thinking, "Wow, the view is pretty nice up here." Julian had remarked earlier, "What do you think would happen if the thing just stopped cold at the top of its revolution?" I suppose that is why you don't joke about Soviet-era amusements. I concluded that it was some sick prank pulled by the perpetually bored operator. "Welcome to Azerbaijan, lousy foreigners."

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Dining With Estonians

Homemade Thai Food for My Estonian Couchsurfers

Monday, March 03, 2008

Sunday Hamam - Going Back to the Well

Why not treat guests from a heralded sauna culture such as Estonia to Baku's finest 300-yr old hamam?

My thoughts exactly. Julian and I were honoured to treat our Estonian counterparts to some serious "sweaty old men" time. "This kind of thing doesn't happen in Estonia," they said, "We all have private saunas."

Ok, so we all can't be lucky enough to live in a country where business meetings and contract negotiations take place in saunas, so you just have to take what you can get. In this case the Estonians and I found ourselves face down on the massage table getting punished by a guy who has way to much fun inflicting pain on people.

I've never been scrubbed down so hard in my life. Any dirt leftover from India, any spec of air pollution from Egypt, and any garlic smell from dinner the night before was surely obliterated. The massage wasn't so bad, either. I just wish he would've worked the lower back a lot more.

Julian will be guest hamam'ing in Turkey next week, so applications are now being collected for next Sunday at one of the two new hamams we have discovered. Anyone want to fly in for the weekend?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

On-a Our-a Way-a to-a da Barge-a

Start by saying that with your best Italiano accent.


We had the privilege of touring a pipe-laying barge afloat on the Caspian shoreline. Our tour guide was the one and only Francesco from Italy. He speaks with an accent you thought only existed in the movies. I'd say the best example would be Luigi, the Italian chef on the Simpsons.

Turns out that pipe-laying in the Caspian Sea is fascinating stuff. They basically piece together small segments of pipe until one continuous length reaches 12 metres. Then the pipe is dropped into the water and the barge moves on. Rinse and repeat until the pipe is completed.

The best part of the tour was having to get dressed up in a bright orange reflective jacket, steel-toed boots, safety glasses, and an orange helmet. So professional we were.

At one point we saw the entire employee list for the barge. The cooks were all Kazakh, the engineers were Italian, there were plenty of Filipinos, Russians, Azeris, and I think there was one Indonesian. Interestingly, each nationality gets paid based on the average income of his country. Brits get paid more than Filipinos and so on and so forth. Brits also work one month on, one month off, whereas the Italians are two months on, one month off. The Filipinos do six month stints before getting vacation. One would think this would cause dissension in the ranks, but I am told it all works very well.