Monday, August 31, 2009


The Tub

Naftalan - with its standard one tall Soviet apartment block

The Oil Bath Victims

Where the Oil Comes From

The Once Glorious Bus Station

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Things You Can Bathe in Other than Water – Part 2

Soon after we settled in to the sanatorium, the moment I had been waiting for since the day I showed up in Azerbaijan arrived. We could only go one at a time, so I was nominated to go first. A guy wearing green scrubs came into the room and ushered me to the bathing area.

The first thing he said after “Is this your first time?” was “Ok, take off your clothes and go into the next room.”

After a deep breath, off they went. I strolled into the adjoining room to see a bathtub in the middle of the room. It was stained a dark tan colour from the consistent contact with the oil. The guy told me to sit down in the tub and then he turned on the tap. Within seconds, oil started pouring out of this pipe about four inches in diameter. I was giddy like a child on his first visit to Disneyland.

I sat there, trying to relax, while the oil level moved up my chest to just below my neck. What a strange feeling. The oil has the colour and consistency of melted milk chocolate. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you’d assume you were bathing in milk chocolate. The oil was also surprisingly hot and possessed almost no smell. The guy said that they take the petrol out of the oil. One would hope that would substantially decrease its carcinogenic properties.

After ten minutes (you’re only allowed a maximum of ten minutes), the guy drained the tub. Unfortunately, the oil doesn’t really fall off your body the way you would hope. Drastic measure need to be taken instead. First, you sit up and the guy uses a long shoe horn to scrape the oil off your arms and back. Second, you stand up in the tub and hold on to some bars with your outstretched arms while the oil gets scraped off your legs. It’s a similar position to when the police ask you to stand against a wall so they can search you. On the second day when an older woman was cleaning me, she point to my nether regions and said, “That’s your business,” and handed me the shoehorn.

Once a majority of the heavy oil is off you, it’s shower time. You take a sponge and a bottle of shampoo and start scrubbing. It takes about thirty minutes to get it all off and you usually end up going through about half a bottle of shampoo. This, if anything, is the major deterrent against bathing in oil. Who wants to spend thirty minutes cleaning each time?

I can’t say I felt much different after the whole experience. Maybe a bit more relaxed. They told us not to go out in the sun for a couple of hours, so we just sat in the shade and played backgammon. What a life.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Things You Can Bathe in Other than Water – Part 1

“Treasure. Bathtub. Treasure bath. I’m going to have a treasure bath!” –Roman Emperor in History of the World Part One.


I had a similar reaction as the emperor at the thought of a crude oil bath in the village of Naftalan. Seriously, how awesome is the idea of bathing in oil in perhaps the only country where it is possible? I’ll put it out there and say it takes awesomeness to a new level.

Ok, it sounds crazy and stupid. Any medical professional not trained in the Soviet Union is probably vehemently opposed to the idea. Soviet era doctors, on the other hand, preach the oil’s psoriasis-healing properties. In those days, people came to Naftalan from all over the Soviet Union on vacations from work to recuperate and to treat skin disorders. Such was the Soviet, and now post-Soviet, obsession with sanatoriums.

And thus my fascination with the idea of an old-timey, Soviet sanatorium. It’s one of those things I would never forgive myself for if I didn’t do it. Leaving India without driving a cycle rickshaw, for example, would’ve caused similar regret.

So off we (I actually managed to convince people to come with me) went to the little village of Naftalan, a 7 hour marshrutka (mini bus) ride from Baku. It’s a quaint little place caught in a time warp; like a mining town on the wrong end of a gold rush. You could tell the town had had its glory days. A large bus station stands deserted at the edge of town. I could imagine it being a hub of multiculturalism forty years ago.

Only one Soviet sanatorium remains today. As much as I would’ve loved to go there, my friends weren’t nearly as keen. We chose instead the brand new government-run place that offered us the equivalent of an assisted living package. Meals, oil baths, a place to sleep. It was the easiest 24 hours of my life.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Kazakhstan, and Other Countries You Probably Couldn't Find on a Map

Only 36 hours away from realizing my dream of setting foot in Central Asia.

I hear the fermented horse milk is good this time of year.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

A First for Everything

This is not one of those "firsts" you want to experience. In fact, if you could avoid it your whole life, you would be doing well for yourself.

I'll start by saying that I'm currently moving apartments. They aren't far from each other, so I've made a couple of trips by bus carrying a large bag and a backpack.

On one such trip, I was standing at the bus stop with the big bag in my left hand and the backpack on my back. In my right hand was my mobile, which I was using to send an SMS to confirm evening plans. Within a few seconds, a taxi pulled up the same way taxis do all over the world. A guys opens the door, gets out, turns his back to the driver, and appears to be giving him money.

I look up to acknowledge the situation and then focus my attention back to my mobile. Then, in a flash, the guy who had been "giving money" to the driver, turns around, rips the phone out of my hand, and jumps in the car. The driver then pins it.

My first reaction was to grab the car and start running along side it, which I did (bag and all). I couldn't get much of a grip and didn't have a free hand to reach inside and try to grab the phone. Within seconds the car reached a speed that, had I chosen to continue hanging on and running, may have resulted in certain serious injury or death. It was at this moment that the guy in the passenger seat turned and shook his head as if to say, "Don't bother trying. You're going to get yourself killed."

So I let go. The car sped away and I was left with my arms in the air thinking, "What the hell just happened?" And while the adrenalin rush felt great, it soon dawned on me that I wasn't getting my phone back. Not that it matters because it's just a phone.

What's unfortunate is how it happened. It's the kind of event that makes you think twice everytime you pull out your phone, or anything else of value, in public. Even worse, it's things like this that make you resent where you are. I can tell you from experience that such resentment often means it's time to get out of dodge. Good thing I'm off to Kyrgyzstan in two weeks for a little vacation.

So there you have it: my first time having something stolen since I started living abroad.