Monday, October 20, 2008

Azerbaijan & Italy -- overseas travels, part one

Antique store, Baku's Old City (İçəri Şəhər), September 2008

In the beginning of September, I found myself traveling half way around the world to Azerbaijan, stopping in Italy on my return. As I sat on the plane headed towards Azerbaijan, I found myself giggling because, in many ways, I like to think that I created this trip and made it happen just by thinking about it.

Here's the back story: back in May, I was looking at a map of the world with some friends and we were pointing out capital cities we loved to say. I fixated on Baku and demonstrated how I liked to say it, beginning with a very quick BAH and followed by an even higher pitched KOOO sound ("BAH-KOOOO"). Of course, the correct pronunciation, something I learned upon arrival, is actually "Bak-eh". My close friends here know what this sounds like and what it does to me when I say it -- I just giggle and giggle. Actually, I have to admit that over the summer, I said it a lot and rather randomly. I said it when I wanted to make myself feel better (due to the resulting giggle effect it has on me), I said it it when it conveniently rhymed with another word ("you", "loo", etc..), I said it when I talked about my future pound puppy that I shall name "Baku", and I said it when I talked about future possibilities ("How great would it be to go to Baku one day?").

In short, I uttered it frequently and kept throwing it back to the universe. Still, even I had to giggle with surprise when the opportunity came for me to travel there! Apparently, the universe was listening and sweetened the deal by including a stay in Italy on my return (more on that part of the trip in a future blog entry).

Minaret from Mohammad's Mosque with the Maiden Tower and the Caspian Sea visible in background.

Azerbaijan is an interesting country with warm, hospitable people eager to show off the beauty and history of their culture. One young man I encountered was kind enough to explain the country's complicated history to me for hours over coffee and cookies. Part of the country is separated from the rest of the country and lies between Armenia and Iran.

Baku is a city awash in contradictions. It felt to me like a 3rd world Paris with lovely architecture under decay (likely a result of the lengthy Soviet occupation) but with much recent work being done to renovate it. It is rich in oil; however, few people seem to receive the benefits of this wealth. One Azeri I spoke with described how oil literally oozed onto the surface back in the 19th century, leading to the country to become the world's largest supplier of oil at the turn of the 20th century.

Azerbaijan is both a diplomatic country -- consider its neighbors of Russia, Armenia and Iran -- and a Muslim country. However, if I did not know the latter ahead of time, I would never have known, as it was not obvious. Likely another nod to the Soviet occupation which lasted for decades. For example, unlike other Muslim countries in which I've found myself, in Azerbaijan I never heard the call to mosque and saw few visible reminders of Islam.

Perhaps the most striking thing I learned about the Azeri people is how sacred they hold friends and family. On our approach to Azerbaijan, I watched the man seated next to me on the plane buy Hermes ties for the friends he'd be seeing while in Baku. I listened intently to him describe how it would be bad form to show up empty handed upon encountering his friends and hosts. He also shared stories of how Azeris celebrate together for hours over vodka and how bread (incredibly sacred in Azerbaijan and never thrown away) sealed their ties to one another. It led me to write this poem which I posted on my blog shortly after my return.

Along Baku's Seaside Promenade with the Caspian Sea just behind.

My favorite outing in Baku was the day I literally lost myself in the city's twisting streets, tasted fresh street bread, haggled for shoes and rugs in the marketplace and took in the diverse people walking around me. Note to future travelers: it is exceptionally tricky trying to cross the street...any street. Traffic guidelines and lanes are merely suggestions, methinks! So, be prepared to RUN for your life! =)

Lastly, while Baku may not be the world's most beautiful city (the Caspian Sea is coated in oil, there is a stench to the air, feral cats own the streets, and it is impossible to feel clean walking around), it is a most fascinating one. I've never encountered anything quite like it before and I know its impressions will stay with me for some time.


IsmeSon said...

By now you may realize Baku is pronounced "Bak-eh" not "Bakoooo" and spelled Baki vs. Baku.

Baku was a Russian mangling of the Azeri.

Kelly McGannon said...

You are absolutely right and this was discovered upon arrival.

Thanks for the reminder to post this to my blog.