Friday, May 21, 2010

The Lada Legend: The Maiden Century

We originally purchased the Colonel because we wanted to be able to head out of town at a moment’s notice. Well, that and because owning a Soviet-made car that is older than you are is about the coolest thing you can do in this part of the world. Until now, we hadn’t really had the chance to go down the street, let along out of the city.

With registration documents, stamps, and stickers in hand, we decided finally to take the Colonel out of the city for a little spin around the Absheron peninsula. It would be the first true test of durability and style. We decided that the destination would be the beach for the 1st annual “Hittin’ the Beach with the Colonel” photo shoot.

Our departure came with much uncertainty. Would we be spending the night in the car because it broke down? How many times would the police stop us? How photogenic was the Colonel on this day?

The weather was glorious when we set out. Traffic was a bit heavier than normal due to Flower Day festivities, so it took us quite a while to get to the airport road—a 12 lane highway with an average speed of 100 km/h. You know you’ve made it in Azerbaijan when you can cruise down such a road at 50 km/h in an old Lada without a single person honking at you.

Once off the main road, we headed towards the sea. A couple of times, people on the side of the road tried to flag us down like we were in a taxi. (Note to self: by a taxi sign and try to make a little extra money driving people around. I even have a hat that would make me look the part.) Some cops standing on the side of the road tried to get us to pull over, but we just kept going. Such is an effective policy in this part of the world.

At last we reached the beach. The Colonel just looked so natural on the sand. No doubt we’ll be coming back out here again for more photo shoots.

On our way back, we stopped by the famed “Fire Mountain” which isn’t so much a mountain, but a small hill that has been burning perpetually for hundreds of years. The security guards couldn’t believe it when they saw three foreigners step out of a 1980 Lada. That alone is worth the price of the car.

Just before reaching home, the trip odometer clicked over the 100 km barrier. A successful trip to say the least.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Lada Legend: How to Deal with Bureaucracy

Vehicle registration is a nightmare. Ask anyone. Our good friend who had been assumed kidnapped recently went through the process. After 11 windows, multiple explanations about how he will not pay bribes, and many hours, he came out alive with the right documents, stickers, and vehicle passports. Contrast that to our freakishly easy experience and it’s easy to see how the number one rule of dealing with bureaucracy is knowing the right people.

During my first 11 months here, I was invited to four weddings. Each time I was made to dance Azeri-style because, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do. By the fourth time, the consensus was that I was getting pretty good at it. What does this have to do with anything? It’s all about who is watching.

The bride and groom at that fourth wedding are good friends of mine. Their whole extended family was there watching me trying to fit in on the dance floor. One member of said extended family happens to be an influential figure at the place you go to get your car registered. Imagine my surprise when I found this out.

This place you need to go is about 15 minutes outside of Baku. There is a constant line of cars protruding from the garage-like structure and a surprising number of people just milling about. Cars were being inspected from top to bottom by guys that really didn’t look like they knew what they were looking for. Different groups of people stood in line outside a couple of doors, waiting for the chance to go inside. We had been there without the car on two other occasions, each time thinking “When are we ever going to have time to sit through this mess?”

It was last Friday that I found out the identity of the connection at the place. And knowing the way things work in this country, such a friend in the system was sure to make life easier. After all, he saw me dance Azeri-style at a wedding. That had to count for something, right?

So on Saturday we showed up in the car only to see a lineup of about twelve cars. We parked and went inside to find our man. Things looked good early as he closed his office right in front of a guy that was waiting before us. Outside, he told us to skip the line and bring the car to the side. The look on our guy’s face when he saw the Colonel pull up was one of incredulity mixed with the understanding that “this is only something foreigners would do.” Our check involved one other guy looking for the engine number, finding it, and then pronouncing the check complete. No need to turn the car on or even show that we had seatbelts.

We parked the car under a tree while our guy went inside to get a stamp on our trust document. After about ten minutes, he came out and proclaimed that all was done. Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite it; we still needed a decal to put on our windshield. He told us that we’d have to pay, which we already knew, and then proceeded to bypass a big line in front of one door. A few minutes later, he came out and then bypassed line in front of another door. He then went back into the first room and emerged with our decal. “All done,” he said, with an “it’s so easy when you work here/what i just did really wasn’t that difficult” look on his face.

Brilliant. In and out in about 25 minutes. At one point I remember asking the guy if he remembered me from his niece’s wedding. “Of course I do,” was his response.

If that isn’t a reason to get up and dance at a foreign wedding, I don’t know what is.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Lada Legend: Our First Trip!

Finally got our registration sticker!

Chillin' on the Beach

More beach action

In the neighbourhood

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Coming through in the Clutch

Ladas are supposed to have problems. Everyone knows that. In fact, I think it’s part of the reason why any foreigner would even consider buying one. “I wonder what will breakdown today,” is a question that has so no definite answer. The possibilities are endless. It’s like calling the psychic hotline and asking what will happen to my Lada today?

As most of you know, our Lada has been no exception. We’ve run out of gas, fully discharged the battery, blown the engine, and overheated due to a faulty thermostat. That doesn’t even include the horrible alignment, dim lights, and decrepit fuel hoses that still need to be fixed.

Luckily, there is an entire sub-economy dedicated to fixing the very cars that have such a high breakdown frequency. You have to wonder if this was a “make work” ploy by the Soviet Union. Your engine blows? Go to a guy that deals specifically with engines. Car doesn’t start properly? Talk to a car electrician. Have problems with your brakes? See a mechanic.

So that’s we did.

Our engine was rebuilt by a guy named Arif, the starter was fixed by Sulduz, and the brakes were redone by Akif. This trio brought the Lada back from being clinically dead. It was a masterful effort. Early results were positive, but the real test remained: get the car from one end of the city (where the mechanic was) to the other (where I live). The journey was about 25 km and had to be done at night to avoid traffic. If the Colonel could pass this test, its future was bright.

Time: 10:00pm. Evan and I board the empty metro on our way to the end of one of the metro lines. Everyone on the train is wearing a black leather jacket. In case you were wondering, no, there was not a audition for Grease going on.

10:30pm. We exit the metro, video camera in hand, and start making our way through the stiff breeze to the yard. Will the Lada be able to move through such intense wind? Only time will tell.

10:50pm. We arrive in the yard. The security guard wakes up from his light slumber trying to figure out why two foreigners have invaded his yard. “We are here for the yellow zhiguli,” we tell him. “10-EC-118?” he asks. “Yes.” “Why didn’t anyone tell me you were coming?” He eventually relents and points us in the direction of the car.

10:55pm. The moment of truth is here. We try to start the car. After four tries, it doesn’t turn over. Damn. What’s wrong? Then we realize it’s the choke. We pull it out and the car starts. Success!

11:00pm. We roll out of the yard and drive around the block a few times. All seems to be running smoothly. The new brakes are definitely more capable at bringing the car to a full stop. This is good news.

11:15pm. Our Lada saviour, Ilham, who lives in the neighbourhood, comes to meet us to make sure everything is running smoothly. After a couple of rides around the block, he says, “All is good, you can now go home.”

11:25pm. We start the 25 km journey home. At one point we had to go on the busiest road in the city. The Colonel held its own and even passed another Lada.

11:45pm. We are almost home. Not a single problem throughout the entire journey. Could our luck finally be turning?

11:50pm. Sirens. Words coming out of a loudspeaker. A police car pulling up beside us. Uh oh. Looks like we have to pull over.

11:52pm. Interactions with the police are always a crapshoot. We decide to take the “I don’t understand Azeri or Russian” road. It’s a war of attrition. Hopefully they will break first.

11:53pm. The younger of the two cops approaches our car. He says something in Azeri about needing documents. I turn to Evan and say, “What does he want? Documents?” We stall for a bit and then handover the documents. The guy looks at them and then walks back to his car.

11:55pm. The older cop comes out and says in seriously broken English that our back light is broken. We don’t understand so he asks me to get out of the car so he can show me. In North American, being asked to get out of the car is rarely a good thing. He points out that the light that is supposed to illuminate the license plate is not working. That is illegal. The next day, I checked to see if other cars had such a lot. Almost none of them did.

11:56pm. We go back to his car and he tells me that we are missing a sticker on our windshield denoting registration. We know this, and it is illegal to be driving around, but the “playing dumb” strategy seems to be working out so far. He asks if I can pay a fine. I say no. I keep asking where I can get the sticker.

11:57pm. Finally, he relents. My documents are handed back and he gets in the car and drives away. We wait until the car is far, far away before proceeding.

12:03am. I arrive at home. What a night. The Colonel passed with flying colours. Time to get it registered.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Lada Legend: In the Conservatory with the Candlestick

It was while watching a mechanic fumble with our decrepit brake cylinder that the name for our Lada was born. We had been struggling for months to find the perfect moniker that would encompass the car’s age, colour, and the multilingual nature of our investor team. Different words in different languages were combined and tried, but to no avail.

One such name was “Hardaloglu”, which translates to “Son of Yellow” in Azerbaijani. Another was “Gorchitsnovich”, or “Son of Mustard”. We felt like we were on the right track, but something wasn’t quite right. And then it dawned un us: Colonel Mustard!

The “colonel” part fit the car’s age perfectly, and the mustard part needs no further explanation. Anyone that has played the game “Clue” will understand the significance of this name. If you have not, then look it up.

Where it gets exciting is the back story. A name like Colonel Mustard provides endless opportunities. For example, did you know that the Lada was the only car to see not one, but two Chechen wars? It was even swapped from one side to the other for mustard and sausages. Those paint chips on the roof? Not a result of corrosion, but rather shrapnel from a nearby explosion. The Colonel might even have been involved in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I thought I saw a picture of it crossing the friendship bridge. We are currently looking into it.

So there you have it: Colonel Mustard. Stay tuned for an update about whether or not the car actually works.