Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes Down the Aisle - Part 2

The Colonel turned some heads that day. Some were purely congratulatory that two people were getting married, while others were flat-out incredulous that such a car would be chosen. The most common response was a chuckle, but we got a few "thumbs up" and other congratulatory words. It was only when we made it to Baku that people really started to notice.

One of the special requests made by Kyle and Leyla was that Amy drive them to the sea port. The latter, who had not been in Xachmaz, was busy getting her hair done in true local wedding style (that is to say, extensions and glitter) while we were on our way to Baku. The contradiction to local wedding transportation norms was frightening. Not only were we using a thirty year old car, but a woman was driving it. I bet that's the first time that has ever happened.

With Amy at the helm, we started the fifteen minute ride to the seaport. Traffic was surprisingly heavy, so it gave people a good chance to look at our car and see what was going on. The first incident involved two men and a woman sitting in a newer Lada. As they passed us, the two passengers immediately whipped out their cell phone cameras. The woman soon stopped because she was laughing uncontrollably. It then dawned on the driver that the guy next to him should take out his giant television camera and film what was going on. What he was doing with such a camera we will never know.

Further along, people honked and offered their congratulations. We heard the words "Nice car!" in Russian, Azerbaijani, and English multiple times. Once we hit the bulvar (the street that runs along the sea), it was gridlock. The second incident saw a driver of a big SUV laugh and then strike up a conversation with us.

"Congratulations. Where is the wedding?"
"Thanks. It's at the seaport."
"The seaport."
"They have weddings at the seaport?!?!"
"Yep, they do now."

Under normal circumstances, the wedding car would arrive at the wedding palace after most of the guests and would make a grand entrance. This was a bit different. Since the sea port isn't designed for such occasions, there isn't really any place to "make a grand entrance." Instead, we parked in one of the parking places, got out, took some pictures, and went inside. The Colonel was left to be admired by passersby. Later, we even noticed people stopping to take pictures with it.

The wedding itself was wonderful. Seven hours later, the Colonel fulfilled its final duty: dropping the newly married couple at their new home. A happy end to one of the Colonel's best days.

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes Down the Aisle - Part 1

Weddings in Azerbaijan are special events in every sense of the word. Families spare no expense in making sure their son or daughter has a wedding that will not warrant any disparraging remarks from family members and friend. The only thing worse about people not talking about your wedding after the fact is people saying bad things about your wedding. This simply is avoided like the plague.

One of the primary wedding decisions to be made is the car that will be used to pick up the bridge and groom and ferry them to the wedding palace. It's a big business in Baku, as evidenced by the Rolls Royces, stretch Hummers, and gulf-winged doored-Mercedes that can be seen cruising around the city. Once you've chosen the car, it must be decorated to the hilt. Flowers, ribbon, shiny accessories. Anything to make sure everyone in the city knows you are getting married.

The Colonel has become somewhat of a celebrity amongst our friends circle in Baku. Many people have requested to ride in it, have their photo taken with it, and even ghostride on top of it. What had not yet been asked of the ol' boy was to be an official wedding car. Imagine our reaction when our friends soon-to-be-married friends, Kyle and Leyla, enthusiastically suggested that the Colonel drive them to their wedding. But of course!

This particular wedding ride was going to be a bit different than usual. Firstly, we would have to go to a town (Xachmaz) two hours of Baku to pick Leyla up and drive her back. Secondly, the wedding was to be held at the sea port restaurant, i.e. not your typical wedding establishment. Much more informal, to be sure.

Decorating the car up in Xachmaz was a blast. The guys at the decorating place were used to making Mercedes and BMWs look nice, so when they saw the car I wanted decorated, all they could do was look incredulous and giggle like schoolgirls. Sure, it is not uncommon for newer Ladas to be used as wedding cars, but thirty-year-old Zhigulis with dilapidated bodies are a whole other story--and surprisingly comical. Despite the laughs, the decorator did the Colonel justice. Rose petals and mesh on the seats, gold sparkly things sticking out the sides, a giant ribbon from front to back, a bouqet on the hood. It was pure class.

Next top was Leyla's parents' to pick up the bride and groom. We were met with much fanfare. Videos cameras recorded our every move, a band played traditional music as Leyla and Kyle emerged from the house, the entire extended family danced to said music. It was wonderful to see everyone so genuinely happy.

Festivies over, the bride and groom settled themselves in the car, while the extended family piled into a minibus. At last we got the all clear and began the ride back to Baku. It was time to see how the ol' Colonel would be received.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Lada Legend: Who Steals a Zhiguli 011? - Part 5

When compared to the other wrecks in the yard, the ol' Colonel wasn't in particularly bad shape. But what was necessary to get it back on the road?
  1. Get a state-approved mechanic to look at the car and write a damage report (and how much it would cost to fix said damage)
  2. Give the damage report to the chief investigator
  3. Get permission to take the car from the impound lot
  4. Make the car driveable to get it out of the lot
  5. Pay the lot authority for parking fees
  6. Pay the tow truck that brought the car to the lot (ironically, we never actually wanted the car towed to the lot)
  7. Get the damage fixed
  8. Take the car to our mechanic to get things looked at
  9. Drive the car off into the sunshine

We managed to get our saviour, Ilham, to take care of most of the above for us. He told us crazy stories about actually getting the car off the lot. The car wouldn't start, but then they finally got it started, before it died halfway to the mechanic. I think there was some rain mixed in as well.

One of the repairs that needed doing was a new front right panel. For this, we made our way to a welder's yard to watch a guy pound the Colonel with a sledge hammer. Multiple times we heard the line, "I can't weld the panel on because there is nothing to weld it to." Such is the state of our car.

Eventually we got the car to the final stage of the process. Our mechanic took care of the final repairs and let us know that we could pick up the car. It was an exciting day. We had no idea what the Colonel was going to look like.

As we approached, one thing immediately caught our eyes: parts of the car that had the paint stripped off were painted a rather bright yellow. This meant big blotches on the hood and the side of the car. Strangely, the black panel remained black. Classy.

Driving the car back into the city was as redeeming as a drive can be. The Colonel cruised through the streets reborn and victorious. In celebration, I attempted to create a meat car while we treated Ilham to a homemade dinner.

Yet another chapter in the Lada Legend comes to a close. Up next, the day the Colonel went down the aisle.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Lada Legend: Who Steals a Zhiguli 011? - Part 4

"It's been found," said the officer on the other end.

"Where?" replied the chief investigator.

"Near Teze Bazaar."

"We're coming."

"The Call" will go down in history as one of those moments that define the course of history. Let's consider for a second, with the benefit of hindsight, what would've happened had "the call" not come.
  1. There would have been no trip to the south of the country for Novruz which would have likely resulted in us not experiencing perhaps the greatest levengi chicken in the country.
  2. We would never have discovered that roasting marshmallows at yanar dag is not only possible, but encouraged.
  3. We definitely would not have found the last remaining Lenin statue in the country during a road trip to Sheki.
  4. The chance to be the official wedding car (more on this in future blog posts) would have eluded us completely.
  5. Most importantly, we would not be three days away from the Colonel's most epic trip to date.
Frightening to think where we'd be had "the call" not happened.

As they pulled up to where the car was sitting, they saw a group of old ladies scatter like they were all about to be arrested. Amy, Sarah, and the chief investigator exited the car and watched as a number of plainclothes policemen emerged from the shadows. They had been watching the car for the last few hours. Turns out this group of old ladies was showing interest in stripping the car down for parts. Good to know the entrepreneurial spirit is still alive and well.

The car had come to a stop next to a wall and only one side could be seen. All looked fine from where Amy and Sarah stood, but a closer inspection by the investigator revealed the extent of the damage. From what they could tell, the perpetrators crudely hotwired the car and then drove it into a wall. The rain certainly did not help matters. Both Amy and Sarah decided it was better to go home and deal with the car in the morning. It had been a long day.

Kent returned from Morocco the next day and was told everything that has been explain up to this point. He laughed and remarked that he probably would've found the car himself because he goes to Teze Bazaar every Sunday. Would he go to the police station the next day to sign some statements? Absolutely. Was this just another epic chapter in the Lada Legend? Definitely.

The next morning at the police station involved a lot sitting and waiting as written statements were typed out on the computer and, not surprisingly, as the discussion about Kent's actual whereabouts over the past six weeks continued. When they found it was not in fact America, the statement had to be changed yet again. Eventually documents were put down in front of Amy, Kent, and the official translator for signature. We learned that the car had been taken to a special "lot" and was awaiting inspection by what we could only assume to be a team of forensic specialists. CSI: Baku was born.

So we waited. And waited. A couple of days passed before we realized we should take matters into our own hands. Amy called the Chief Investigator and asked what was needed in order to get the car out of the lot. In lieu of a forensic specialist inspection, a 3rd party mechanic had to provide a written estimate of the damage. But where was this lot? Way out of town, of course.

That weekend we made our way to the lot via a combination of buses, taxis, and walking through a lot of mud. It turned out that our car was never awaiting forensic inspection, but was rather simply dumped with all of the other smashed-up cars. Had we not taken matters into our own hands, I don't think the Colonel would've seen the road again. As for the exterior damage, it was worse than first thought. The entire right front panel was smashed, the right front tire was ripped, the right headlight was broken, and there was suspension damage. This wasn't going to be an easy fix.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Lada Legend: Who Steals a Zhiguli 011? - Part 3

"It's the police."

In many contexts, that is not something you want to hear coming from outside your door. Even if it just your friends pulling a prank on you, your heart leaps into your throat for a second and you think to yourself, "This is not good."

Luckily for Amy and Sarah, this police visit was friendly in nature. The four investigators, two of which were in uniform, standing outside the door were in fact there to ask questions about the car's disappearance. Once inside, they took off their shoes and made their way into the kitchen. Dinner had been put on the table five minutes prior. Two glasses of wine accompanied the meal.

Investigator: "Can you please tell us what happened?"

Amy: "We can't find our car."

Investigator: looking at the glasses of wine "Are you sure you didn't just get drunk and forget where you parked it?

For those keeping score at home, there are now two possibilities for the car's disappearance: theft and drunken forgetfulness.

The investigators, realizing that the latter possibility was not holding water, took Amy and Sarah out to the street where the car had originally been parked. It was time to see how forthcoming the neighbours would be with information now that uniforms were involved.

Not surprisingly, the amnesia experienced not 24 hours earlier was now gone and people began speaking volumes about the "annoying yellow car that was ruining the vibe of the street." Even the gnome-like man felt obligated to say more, especially since the chief investigator had just shown up:

Chief: Did you see that car parked here?

G: Ya, I saw it. What? I've already peeled my eyes with those girls.

Chief: What did you see?

G: I saw some kids pushing it down the street.

Chief: Why didn't you stop them?

G: It wasn't my car to watch. No green, no guilt.

Neighbourhood watch would be proud.

Amy was then taken to the police station for a statement. Sarah went home to change because the heavens had just opened up. The boys at the station had a good laugh over the whole story. And how could they not? Foreigners, an old Soviet car, someone actually stealing it. Hilarious. They seemed very interested in who "this Kent Babin" was and why he wasn't in the country.

Once Sarah made it to the station, the chief investigator took she and Amy to the main police station for the region. More statements were made, more questions asked. It was stated that Kent was in Morocco, even though the police continued to believe he was in America.

11:30pm - With all formalities finished, the chief investigator offered to take Sarah and Amy home. It was on the way back that, what will be forever known as "the call", came.