My Trip to Azerbaijan: Part One


I have to preface this post by noting a not so cool thing about myself:

I'm under the impression that no matter where I travel, almost everything is the same abroad as it is right here at home. People close to me get annoyed when I'm not dazzled by different cities or must-see destinations, but I can't help it. No I haven't seen it all-- not even close. And maybe it's naive of me to think that everyplace and the people who inhabit it are the same, but from my observations, the only thing separating any of us is literally land and water. More on that in Part Two.

The first time I'd visited Azerbaijan, my husband and I were in a mad rush to see as many family members as possible within a short window of time. You see, we were meeting his mom, sister, niece, and brother-in-law in Turkey, where we would spend the majority of our vacation, so we didn't have a lot of time in the renowned "Land of Fire."

I remember us driving from his aunt's place in Baku about 3 hours to Masalli, his birth town. We were jet-lagged and rushing to be hosted at a number of homes, gardens, and hallways. We'd even pulled over on the highway to meet family travelling on the road!

As burdensome and tiring as it sounds, I didn't realize how necessary it was to sit and have tea dozens of times within the day or stretch the confines of my stomach to accommodate everyone's delicious home cooking. Because everyone I met genuinely wanted to welcome my husband back and me into their homes, lives, and family. They really cared, really put their heart into preparing for us, and really were very happy that we came, whether it was for an hour or ten minutes. To oblige them, even for a moment, was their honor, and when I got to know them, it became mine as well.

This year, we were in Azerbaijan one-hundred percent of the trip. We traveled throughout the different regions, and I got to see where my husband was born, where he grew up, where his family worked or went to school, among other very cool tourist spots, villages, and cities. We also got to spend much more time with family, which to me, was most enjoyable.

And here's where I need to mention that my feelings about Azerbaijan revolve entirely around family. If I never met my husband and somehow traveled to Azerbaijan on my own, I'd still enjoy my trip, but it is precisely because of my marriage, that Azerbaijan is now my second home, where another piece of my heart is, where my family has grown.

This probably isn't the travel post you expected, but it's the only way I know how to write one. If you're asking yourself: Is she going to show us which spots she visited? The answer is yes. Does she have anecdotes to share? Yes. Will it be different from what's on IG? I think so, but some pictures may be the same. Is this going to be a long post? That is likely, yes; hence the "Part One" mentioned in the title.

But here's what I hope to answer in this post: Simply, what's different, and what's the same? These are the questions I ask myself whenever I think about traveling, which despite what my preface to this post suggests, I highly recommend seeing the world, if at least to understand that we are all the same and prejudice is stupid. Cool? Cool.

"So, Bianca, what's different?"

1) Other than the language, currency, and wall outlets? The food! I know, I know--obvious right? I dedicated many IG stories and posts to Azeri food, because--y'all--it's so good. And not just good in the way that cuisine from its original place is good. It's good in flavor and nutrition. Listen, I didn't hold back for vacation: I'd set my mind to getting back on a diet as soon as I returned home, but you know what? It was unnecessary. I'd spent every day enjoying fatty lamb, bread, cheese, honey, baklava, ice cream, a variety of compotes and fruit preserves, and a number of other things (I even let myself buy Haribo gummy bears in the supermarket), and do you know what I learned when I stepped on a scale back in the US? I'd lost weight! WHAT! If I'd eaten that way here, you would see the difference in a day!



The thing is, food in Azerbaijan is mainly local and truly organic. Nearly everyone in the countryside has got a garden; they don't use pesticides; their chickens provide eggs and meat, which isn't plumped with salt water or genetically sped up to grow quicker with hormones. In fact, chicken meat there is an oxymoron, because they're so lean, they barely have meat! Don't even get me started on cows, which are obviously meat and dairy sources. Ask Azeris, and they'll tell you how much they love them some homemade cheese and yogurt, which without a cow in your backyard is impossible. Going to the store for milk, cheese, yogurt, or meat is not an option (it is, but no one prefers it). You have your own!



Basically, you see the progress of your food the entire way, and if you don't eat it soon, it will spoil, because there aren't any preservatives. It's got its cons (lots of maintenance, yard work, etc), but the pros outweigh them! In the city? People import the goods from the countryside...yup, just like here, but again FRESH and REALLY, REALLY ORGANIC!



Ok, I'm done preaching.

2) They drink tea more than you drink coffee. If you're someone who isn't a fan of tea like myself, you're very conscious of just how many times a day Azeris have tea. They're obsessed with it. If you think you love coffee, you're wrong. You don't love coffee as much as Azerbaijanis love tea. Cold? Tea. 107 degrees? Tea. Just ate a meal and are stuffed? Tea. Tea in morning, tea just before bed. Tea with lemon, and sugar, and candy, and fruit--preserves, chocolates, pastries, nuts, dried fruit...am I leaving anything out???





They are so obsessed with tea that many monuments are dedicated to it. Like these cups we visited in Old Baku last year:


Or this giant samovar:


Still not convinced? How about that time my husband's family suggested that while in Lankaran, we had to drive uphill, through an unfinished road to have tea from "Baba and Nene," a couple who have been serving tea from a samovar in their car for 29 years! Something like, "the best tea we ever had" left my sister-in-law's lips. And she was right, so hey!




3) Now, I wasn't expecting this, but everyone met was pretty open to meeting me, a tourist (and I'm not just talking about family members). Azeris are, straight-up, warm people, you guys.

I'm sure I'm not the only one wondering how they'll be perceived in another country, specifically as an American. We do have quite the reputation, so there is always some trepidation on foreign soil. Will they think I love Trump? That I've been on Girls Gone Wild? That I won't like their food because I prefer burgers? That I'm dumb?

It was the opposite. They had really positive ideas about me as an American. Like: I'm cool. (And chic probably...I mean, look at my glasses). One of my husband's little cousins legit saw a picture of mine on IG in Liberty State Park and excitedly exclaimed, "Wow, America is so beautiful!" I didn't have the heart to tell him I saw a homeless man peeing next to the Wonder Bagel the other day, or that huge cockroaches live in the basement of my building, and it's the main reason I'm afraid to go down there and clean my laundry sometimes...

Here's the photo my husband's little cousin saw, making him believe America is always gorgeous.
 I assumed that people abroad would hate me because Americans are depicted awfully (and sometimes, accurately) in the media. But I still got invited to a village girl's henna night (basically her bachelorette party). And I still got kisses and IG follows from my husband's family's neighbors! Their neighbors!

Here are some family members and myself crashing a local village girl's henna night, with the henna marks to prove it!
People I'd never met before welcomed me into their homes, wanted to feed me! Asked me to dance their national dance with them! But I guess this is all the result of a really important custom in Azeri culture: Hospitality. Which brings me to my next point!

4) Hospitality is unparalleled in Azerbaijan. If you follow me on IG you already know about the dinner spreads when you are a guest. There's everything you can imagine wanting, even in the humblest of homes, and people use their best china to serve you. I'm pretty sure the Queen of England and I will have used the same china I was offered in an Azerbaijani's household if she also managed a visit. That's how special they make you feel!

If you're a guest in someone's home, they may give you their bedroom, while they sleep on the couch! They will ask you repeatedly within the same hour if you are fine, if you are enjoying yourself, if you like your food, if you want something else, if you're tired or hungry. It's almost as if they're aiming to make your experience perfect.

People will go out of their way to make you feel at home and to be helpful. Let me give you an example: We stayed at a hotel called Talistan in Ismailli, which was beautiful. One morning as we sat for breakfast, my husband decided he would buy tandir bread, because theirs hadn't arrived yet. So he drove around searching for the "tandir bread" sign which adorned many a storefront, and stopped at one place. The owner apologized to him, because his tandir wasn't working. Instead of leaving my husband high and dry, he offered for his son to drive with my husband to his competitor's tandir stand! Ram got the bread, returned the son to his father, and even though this owner made a comment about his competition's bread being much smaller than his own, he still went totally out of his way to help my husband, a stranger. Apparently, it's the Azeri way.

A picture at the Talistan hotel. I wasn't lying when I said it was picturesque!
At Talistan, I witnessed my sister-in-law make numerous requests for my niece and nephew, and not once did any of the staff display any attitude! In fact, they were cheerful, polite, and funny--like long lost cousins you visited at work. And did I mention they don't expect to receive any tip in return? No way, it's just their work ethic! As a matter of fact, when my husband tipped a young man waiting on us in the first hotel we stayed at in Masalli called Vilesh, his boss became very upset and discouraged the behavior. Why? Because impeccable service should be guaranteed to everyone always, without the expectation of a tip.

Many people may have mixed reactions about this, but think about the last crappy waiter you had. Did they really deserve twenty percent? I rest my case.

5) Does this attention to perfection exist in other ways in Azerbaijan? Oh heck yes.

Gosh, where do I even begin?

Okay, how about Baku, the capital city: the one thing I remembered from our short trip my first time in Azerbaijan was how stunning Baku is in general. It's a city designed to impress. Impress tourists or themselves? Maybe both-- because the architecture is out of this world unique and creative. At night, it's even more stunning. Everything from the famous Flames to the giant Ferris Wheel are lit up. It's truly magical.

But it doesn't end there.

The streets are super clean! You know why? Because they hire a bunch of grandmas to come and sweep with their brooms so the city streets stay immaculate. Port Baku Mall and even the Boulevard is lined with intimidating storefronts like Valentino, Gucci, Balenciaga, Jimmy Choo, Giorgio Armani, Givenchy, Burberry, and so on. Yes, we have these too, but when the sidewalks aren't riddled with gum or trash, these names actually come off much more imposing. I mean, imagine what tourists visiting New York must think when see our trash lined sidewalks and mega-sized train rats. (Just a note: their subway system is beautiful too.)

Speaking of sidewalks, Baku is such a perfect place that there are no end-of-the-sidewalk ramps. You know that little dip in the sidewalk you use daily and depend on if you're--I don't know-- disabled or pushing a carriage? Yeah, they don't have those. If you aren't a beautiful single person with working legs, being a pedestrian in Baku won't work for you.

Another thing I noticed after my first visit was that everyone took really good care of their appearances. There were no sweatpants or messy hair. Girls wore makeup, trendy clothes, and heels, and the guys weren't far behind them with their tight name-brand clothes, perfectly coiffed celebrity hair and tennis shoes. They were all thin. No one was overweight. In fact, I played a game: Spot a normal bodied person (my Western and/or Hispanic POV equates "normal" with "full-figured"), and when I did find one, they turned out to be tourists.

Even in the poorest families, people make an effort to look "in style"--to look good. That meant that the lady who was chasing chickens in her backyard was the same lady wearing a Gucci knock-off dress. The little boy working in his father's store was the same boy wearing a fake Burberry belt to hoist up his faded, tight jeans. Gucci t-shirts are sold in the same stores you get your house slippers from. If I were to bring back any souvenirs, it would have been those fake Gucci shirts. I'm actually experiencing a lot of regret now, because that would have been great.


But back to this: Azeris like to show off how good they look, I get it! But Azerbaijanis show off more than just their looks and their fancy, clean city. They also drive the nicest cars. Predominantly Mercedes Benz's. Additionally, cops exclusively drive BMW's, and I do remember driving past a Ferrari and Bentley dealership, because, you know, that's common...(sarcasm). Rather, the notion of wealth and prestige is common. I was told that this obsession is even evident in the license plate and phone numbers allotted to people.

Essentially, if you have money, you pay for double or repetitive numbers in your plate or mobile number. It's just a little extra hint to the world that you've got it going on just in case your Ferrari isn't doing the trick.

Okay, last one!

6) Azeris are crazy drivers.

What is a lane? Azerbaijanis don't know. What is signalling? They also do not know. For people who are so kind everywhere else, on the road, they can be quite aggressive. There's a lot of honking and cursing I assume (I haven't grasped the language yet). It actually makes sense that Baku hosts the Formula One Motor Race, because their driving is just as mad as anything you'd see on a track.

I mean, look: my husband is a calm man, except when he is driving in Azerbaijan. When he was driving around the city once and actually used his signals, his uncle joked that he was basically alerting everyone that he was not from around there.

All I know is, I'm already stressed when I drive. I may have a heart attack if anyone asks me to do it in Azerbaijan.

And that's that!

Do me a favor: take all of these anecdotes and observations with a grain of salt. They are my experiences and my individual perspective on life and people somewhere else in the world. Hopefully, you enjoyed the tales, the new knowledge, and my attempts at jokes enough to come back and read Part Two when it is ready.

I appreciate your reactions to this post as well as any feedback offered. Did I get something wrong or so right? Let me know. I'd love to hear from you!

As always...


Cordially,



Bianca



PS: There are many more photos and stories on my Instagram page @cordiallybianca . Feel free to follow and leave a comment on any of my travel posts. Thanks!

Comments

  1. Bianca, thank you so for much such a great read :) It was a pleasure to read it twice :)

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    1. Wow! I'm so flattered! Thank you for both your reads! Haha. =]

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  2. Very enjoyable, Bianca. It brought back fine memories of a 13-month project I had in Baku in 2008-9. I will probably never make it back, but I left many fine friends there.

    You did forget one thing about the driving...if one passes his (sexist, but true) exit on a freeway, one need only slam the car into reverse to get to the correct departure point. Oncoming drivers? - No problem!

    If you ever have insomnia, check my blog of the project: http://bakumusings.blogspot.com/

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    Replies
    1. Neil, thanks for your comment. It gave my husband and I a good laugh, upon which he remembered, fondly, of the time an Azeri friend of his got into some trouble attempting those same maneuvers here in the States. So funny.

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  3. Replies
    1. Thank you Rafig. I am working on it! =]

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