Upon my arrival by sea from Kazakhstan my hope was to discover what sets Azerbaijan apart from its Caucasus neighbours. I’ve since reframed the question.
Two differences are immediately obvious. Georgians and Armenians are among the world’s oldest conscripts of Christianity, past to present. The Azeri’s relationship with Christianity was largely extinguished in the 7th century, swapped for Islam. Secondly, one cannot ignore the behemoth petroleum income pouring into Azerbaijan since the late 1800s, extraction continuing along its Caspian shores.
Culture and identity rising up from a different religion (and oil income) can and commonly does result in stark differences between neighbours regardless of the continuity of physical landscapes. Many aspects of life and culture that I experienced cycling through Azerbaijan stand in contrast with those of Georgia. But given these religious and economic differences this doesn’t feel unexpected. I consider now that the wrong question was being asked.
Forget the differences, there are lots. Instead, what about Azerbaijan and the Azeris ties them to their Caucasus neighbours? One possibility is that a deep culture of hospitality permeates the region, persisting despite borders, enclaves, exclaves, undeclared republics, discrimination and smouldering conflict.
Here’s a story about just that. It details my most resonant memories from Azerbaijan, memories of kindness and connection I shared with a family who took me in for three days. It’s also a story about the choices I made that contributed to bad circumstances, and the choice I made to celebrate instead of begrudge my time there.
Call my selective memories from Azerbaijan a choice in perspective, or credit it to the quality of Azeri hospitality. Georgians and Armenians are invariably lauded for their ‘guest from God’ mentality, but I believe that a traveller can seek out a comparable experience in Azerbaijan. I invite you to find out for yourself.
By the time she laid the red pyjamas out on the bed, released from their plastic sleeve it was clear a point of resignation had been reached. A point of embrace describes it better, because I mean that to be positive. The sleepwear was scant, lace-trimmed faux satin that presented me with two immediate queries: Why was this being offered to me, and what are the chances of these diminutive shorts fitting around my thighs.
As I donned them with as much serenity manageable it occurred to me that I’d be doing anything this family invited me to do. I was going to try to approach this with vulnerability and the idea did not bother me. It was a choice wrapped up in trust and making the choice cultivated additional trust in the days to come, rapidly blooming into an arrangement that felt natural. It was difficult to leave the family and the home. A translator wasn’t required to understand my welcome was not overstayed.
When I pedalled away three days later, carried along with my unexpected negligee and a picnic lunch Solmas had packed for me was the queasiness of conflict. Tainting the memories of sharing food, stories and space was the torment that comes from being taken advantage of. I felt I had been taken advantage of. Yet, really, what stung worse was that I feared the family I left behind felt the same.
It’s taken me distance, time and a passport stamp to execute on the desire to write about this account as it happened. And so, herein I quash my desire to share a version that downplays my own oversights and indecision, that omits how I was robbed in Azerbaijan. I let my guard down then and I’m letting it down now.
Because even without that melancholy, it’s still a great story. I was spotted, invited, followed my gut, mounted a horse without a saddle, herded sheep, descended into the depths of village dwellings containing both turkeys and TV. I became a participant and an observer in lives so unlike my own. I slept in sexy pyjamas. I was taken for walks, for journeys into the mind, for a picnic.
Three days of cherry compote, meatballs slurped from their oily broth and evenings lubricated with vodka was enough to make my bicycle feel heavy the morning I left. The only thing that emerged slimmer was my money stash – almost four hundred dollars slimmer and not of my own doing. And, it’s okay.
At the sight of Rafiq I feel irritated. I’m exposed all day and today have reached the point that I’m ready to be hidden, ready for a silent night. We stare at each other but he’s too far away and I can’t make out his face to judge him. This is what I get, I berate myself, for leaving the camping question unanswered until I’m flirting with dusk. Of course someone would see me out here. After many moments he raises his hand in a gentle wave, and I go to him. Cobras, he motions. You shouldn’t camp out here alone.
Soon he is riding my bicycle and I am riding his horse. I don’t know how to ride a horse without a saddle and never expected to try it. Unending fits of laughter, the frantic kind are toppling out of my mouth as I struggle to stay upright. We’ve lost all the sheep in the scrubland. I’ve lost all my composure. The horse doesn’t stop when I command it to, because I can’t replicate the way Rafiq’s lips move to order its halt. The horse is going to throw me down the ravine, I’m convinced. Passing men sitting on chairs outside wave as we walk along the train tracks and power lines until turning into the village.
Soon I’m in the shower, outside the house but within the metal gate. The toilet is elsewhere, also separated from the house. I’m drying off with a fluffy towel that is theirs, not mine, hanging it on the clothesline. As he indicated, Rafiq does not live alone. His wife, Solmas, serves a late dinner outside and she barely eats herself. She’s sturdy, hair pulled back in a low bun. She doesn’t speak English and doesn’t seem to understand my limited Russian. Their son, Anas is quiet when he joins us well after dark. Our faces are discoverable to each other only by the overhead lights.
When Rafiq asks if I want moroshni, what he means is that he will drive his weary Lada to the store to buy a tub of it, while simultaneously Anas parades me down the streets on horseback. Same horse, but I’m playing passenger now. That we are not on a commute for ice cream only becomes clear to me when we return, hands sweaty from clinging to his waist and legs sore from squeezing the horse’s abdomen in a death vice. We pass so many convenience stores on our ride and I keep wondering why we are getting ice cream on horseback, and why if that was the mission we aren’t even accomplishing it. Dessert is back at the house already along with Rafiq and it’s chocolate. Whatever isn’t consumed is left to melt in the tub on top of one of the broken refrigerators. There’s no freezer.
There’s two refrigerators and they are both outside and both have broken doors. I photograph them to remember the race car stickers plastered to their sides. This is why I travel, I think to myself at that moment. Those mundane sights, so far away from home but also relatable to my memories of plastering things on possessions that I’m sure my parents might have wanted to keep clean.
Over three days only Solmas sees me in my sexy pyjamas and yet we all sleep in one room, a large one on the north side of the house. But I retire before the family and wake up after them as well, covering myself with the blanket to preserve modesty despite the heat. The bed is too soft and the room too dark to let discipline win. I’m actively encouraged by Rafiq and Solmas to descend into the stupor of leisure. My offers to help or to clean up are brushed off, even met with disdain. There’s one day that I take two naps only a few hours apart.
She’s my favourite, Solmas. One day we reach the market by carpooling with a neighbour. He retrieves us outside the gate and we leave the dirt roads of the village behind for the asphalt of the town. At the market she’s selecting tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, two watermelons, bags of plums and apricots.
There’s not a clear schedule for mealtimes or excursions, at least not one that can be communicated to me. I delight in this except when I am in want of a snack. But it can be relied upon that there’ll be three meals a day, two episodes of sheep and goat exodus, and at least one social trip down the road or out of the village. I take part in all of this.
Rafiq calls me ‘Pushkin’ when I take a break from our long conversations to write in my journal. Long conversations, you ask: Rafiq speaks English? He speaks as much English as I speak Russian. Among his vocabulary, curiously, is ‘abstract,’ which he uses often and vigorously to launch into an attempt to discuss marriage, life, Armenia, and I’m sure many other topics which are completely lost on me. He is never frustrated, he just laughs and persists when we have no idea what the other is trying to say. In the day we converse over compote. At night we converse over vodka.
It’s the second night and Solmas is weeping as she sits on the stairs beside me. Rafiq has gone inside to deal with his emotions in his own way. In her hands Solmas holds a purple box containing photos of their second son, some of which are in my hands now. Through finger counting I’m made to understand that four years have passed since his death. I am both wholly unprepared for this situation and so in wonder that this family is exposing themselves to me, a stranger. These are the moments that the absence of a shared language doesn’t matter. In Azeri I still wouldn’t know what to say. We’re all vulnerable.
Inside the house, in the shared bedroom my vulnerability was represented in those ridiculous pyjamas, exposing myself simply because I was offered the opportunity to do so. I would have happily slept in the few clothes with me but my new sleepwear was novel and a gift from another woman besides, intended in my mind to be used.
But outside of the house is where most of home life happens for Solmas, Rafiq and Anas, and here too I exposed parts of myself, though not in the sense of physical appearance. All panniers off the bike, my possessions come to be clustered by the outdoor couch, under the tree where I fixed my bicycle, and near the clothesline. My money stash was never made visible but it was indeed there for the taking, in an envelope…in a notebook…in a bag…in a pannier. And there, along with my passport, was where my valuables remained even when we left the house on those excursions of moments to hours.
I’m not new on the homestay block, although reading the above and thinking that I am could be forgiven. That in this instance I didn’t feel the need to keep these things in my possession is glaringly apparent? Why? I don’t have a good answer. It just felt different than other experiences I’d had.
If I hadn’t undertaken a grand reorganization out on the driveway the day before leaving the missing money wouldn’t have been noticed until some time later in Azerbaijan. I was distributing funds out of my primary wallet at a trickling rate; camping, water from fountains, picnics and free meals were stretching my manat out, way out. If the repacking hadn’t happened I might have always thought that the money had been taken at the hostel I stayed at earlier in Baku, so resistant my heart was to the idea that anyone could upturn the dream I currently found myself in.
Because, upon discovering most but not all of my money missing, that’s what did cast doubt on their whereabouts. As my stomach sunk I reassured myself that I had somehow lost it on the way, or that it had been lifted in Baku. You see, even at the outset of the discovery it was about the betrayal and shame of being vulnerable and being let down, and less about the funds themselves.
But I wasn’t sure. I knew it was a possibility that what was most feared had occurred. I carefully packed up the pannier and put it in the bedroom, not letting my hosts know what was going on in my mind for fear that my mind had temporarily temporarily been lost, the money in fact hidden somewhere forgotten. Besides…how even to explain my accusatory hypothesis? What would be the effect on this family’s honor?
Here’s the rub.
The pannier remained by my bed that night, and I was at the house for all but a small visit I took with Solmas and Rafiq down the street. I didn’t check the envelope again before I left, still unsure what had happened and trying to put the dark feelings aside for future Megan to sort out. But indeed when I next checked, the remainder of the money was gone. Oh no, that’s not true. Two dollars remained. At least, I reasoned, I knew now exactly where I had lost it.
At the discovery I put the envelope back in my pannier, realized my odometer was broken, and Stan decided it was an appropriate moment to fall over onto the road. I groaned, and felt gross.
About this twist in circumstance I stewed and my resentment festered as subsequent summer evenings were sweated out alone in my tent. The earnestness of my hosts’ hospitality was put into question. Doubt was cast on everyone I had met (the whole street), every moment I felt we were contributing to something that transcended transaction (like, all of the moments). The magnificent spontaneous homestay had become a perversion. I was not asked for money, it was taken from me. And I was an idiot.
‘Who was in on it?’
At my most irrational I wondered if crisp one hundred dollar bills were rare in this part of Azerbaijan, a magnitude not usually broken in a place where bags bulging with vivid produce retail for a dollar or so. As in…there’s no Apple Authorized Retailer in the town. I entertained the possibility that my bills could be traced and made a mental note to capture serial numbers of future bills. Is there a police station here?
There’s a term for all this. It’s called denial.
The mental moaning persisted until one day it didn’t. Cycling is therapy. You are nothing if not confronted by the mess in your mind as you by choice pass through the world slowly, rhythmically. The good and the bad fades away as each new day saturates the mind with input to process.
‘Did they actually hate me?’
My thoughts came to rest for a time on the consequences of the vulnerability and openness I had demonstrated with Rafiq, Anas and Solmas. On how it might have been perceived negatively by those who met me during those three days.
Had I gone too far? Was it a mistake to take pictures with a digital camera, to record videos with an iPad, to share pictures of my travels, all signs of material wealth. Did it come across as condescension, as holier than thou? Was their enthusiasm borne of obligation to the guest, and not of curiousity?
Or, was it the very thing I avoided doing for fear of insulting my hosts – offering payment – that someone was actually insulted by? Were my actions perceived as flaunting my wealth and not contributing financially to the family who had so kindly taken me in? If that was the case, how terrible. Offering payment when being invited into a home is an aspect of travel that continues to feel tricky, the antithesis of cut and dry. Was what I experienced meant as retribution, settling the score?
A theft can change the course or duration of a trip. Four hundred dollars will feed and water a camping cyclist for well over a month in Azerbaijan with moderate budgeting. The amount was not trivial, but in my case it was not a game changer and I was free to continue on as before. As I saw – and see it – the choice faced wasn’t to change the trip or change my circumstances, but instead to choose what to see, what to remember.
It’s irrelevant really, but I strongly refute that Rafiq or Solmas took the money. Doing so would do much to belittle the strong intuition I feel towards their character. Their son Anas, or one of his kind-of-douchey friends who visited the house on occasion, I can’t be sure. The door was rarely locked. Temptation was there, and in many ways I goaded it. I’ll never know.
The choices I’ve made are these. To be grateful for the opportunity to have shared moments with people who were truly kind and generous to me – in true Caucasus style. To maintain in my mind this experience as my undoubtable highlight of Azerbaijan. For future invitations into homes, to make efforts to show my appreciation in ways beyond conversation, expressions of gratitude and time spent together – whether that be financial or otherwise. And to still put on whatever clothing is offered to me, but only if I don it over my money belt.
Azerbaijan – where I found myself on both the giving and receiving end of unexpected generosity.