Tbilisi, Georgia

It was Sunday afternoon, and my work in Baku was essentially complete – just a few things to wrap up in the morning. I had been told by my colleagues to visit the “old city,” a fortress-town that in 2000 was deemed by UNESCO as Azerbaijan’s first World Heritage Site. Happy that the gates were open so late in the afternoon, I poked my head in and began exploring. It was fantastic. Narrow and  curvy alleys, cobbled streets, eerily quiet. I snapped a handful of pictures and spent an hour or so walking around, then it started to rain and I headed back to the hotel.

The next morning, I left for the airport 4 hours before my flight, knowing that I needed to stop at the DHL office to ship some paperwork back to Boston. Still wasn’t enough time. One day, when I am rich and famous and powerful and all that jazz, I will buy GPS devices for all cab drivers in Baku. I’m serious. I had the hotel arrange for me a cab, as I hadn’t had luck the last few days getting to my destination. I repeated the name of the street very clearly before getting in the vehicle, and the cab driver even acknowledged my pronunciation. I thought all would be well. After an interlude of wrong turns and some dense, construction-induced traffic, we found the DHL office. The line was long, too long considering that my flight was 2 hours away and we were at least 45 minutes from the airport. Oops. I bailed, jumped back in the cab, and made it to the airport just in time. Luckily the airport was empty and I breezed through security.

On the plane to Tbilisi, I was stopped from taking pictures of the mountains out the cabin window. Other than that, the flight went well – water, snacks, the usual. For Tbilisi customs, I used a different passport, not really sure if my Russian visa would cause any heads to turn. The passport official laughed when she saw my picture, asking for another form of identification. I pulled out my driver’s license, and she laughed even harder. I am in dire need of a more appropriate photo identification. Chuckles aside, I picked up my bag and found a taxi, eager to get to the hotel and start wondering around the city.

The cab driver and I, like most interactions I’ve had with people this trip, didn’t understand each other. The only words I understood were “President George Bush,” words that were accompanied with hysterical gesticulations of drinking and dancing. I later learned that when Bush was last here, he had quite the time. I was also shocked to see good ‘ole George waving at me from a Himalayan-sized banner over the road: “President George Bush Highway.” I couldn’t believe it. I’ll be sure to have my camera ready next time around.

The hotel is not nearly as lavish as the one in Baku, but the location couldn’t be more convenient. I spent the evening walking around to get my bearings and managed to find a copy of Moby Dick in a Georgian bookstore. A phenomenal read so far. I worked today and yesterday, pleased with how accommodating most shop owners have been. One high-end boutique, though, said that I was not allowed to write down prices – I could only memorize them. I’ve killed one-too-many brain cells in my day to be able to effectively memorize a series of brand names and prices. I ignored their request and wrote away, running out the door before they could voice a second complaint. Such is the life of the surveyor.

Two funny stories:

  1. I walked into an Internet Cafe to inquire about prices. The owner says, in perfect English, “100 lari [about $60 dollars].” I froze, rightfully dropped my jaw, but before I could retort he spoke again. “That’s bad news. But I have some good news. I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching to Geico.” Ha! I started cracking up, he started cracking up, then I moved onto another store.
  2. I took a break from surveying and poked my head in a shop that showcased knives and chess sets in the window. I pride myself on being a quasi-nerd, and I was stoked to check out what they had. All the chess sets were pretty elaborate, one particularly interesting – a “war on terror” edition if you will. Pawns on one end were represented by 8 miniatures of George Bush, with Tony Blair as king and the twin towers as rooks, etc. On the other end, Bin Laden was king, planes were rooks. It was the most hysterical, un-politically correct merchandise I have ever seen. If it wasn’t several hundred dollars, I would have bought it in a heartbeat. I tried to take a picture, but before my camera powered up, I already had the attention of two employees who politely said nuh-uh. I grudgingly agreed to put the camera back in the case. Damn.

Baku, Azerbaijan

My travel experiences have taught me a few lessons. Some of the more important ones:

  • It is always better to have more cash on you than not enough.
  • Don’t trust directions, signs, maps. Seek multiple sources for directions.
  • Warm body language can help break the language barrier.
  • Wearing a flashy blue fleece often attracts unwanted attention.
  • In the airport, accidentally throwing away your plane ticket is a bad thing.

Yes folks, in Moscow, during my 2-3 hour transit from Yekaterinburg to Baku, I accidentally threw away my plane ticket. Now, to be fair, I had already been in the Moscow airport on two previous occasions, underwent the exact same security clearances, and my boarding pass and passport sufficed as evidence enough that I belonged on the flight. This time was different. In a much-needed effort to organize, I rifled through my pockets and cleaned out my travel wallet, ridding myself of unneeded ticket stubs, papers, etc. At the gate, I played monkey-see-monkey-do and followed the people in front of me, yet until I approached the front of the line, I did not realize that I was missing a piece of paper. I was ushered aside, people stared, the check-in woman didn’t speak English. Even now, I am not really sure how I got out of Russia, how they let me board the plane without the original ticket. Persistence pays off I guess?

When I arrived in Baku, I had to wait nearly two hours for a visa. But the karmic scale tipped in my favor for a second time that day when, after breezing through customs, I saw my pre-scheduled airport taxi pickup waiting with my name in bold. He waited two hours for me. That’s some serious loyalty, and I hadn’t even met the guy. I couldn’t have been happier – at that point I wasn’t in the mood to negotiate with the other cabbies.

Work here has been OK for the most part. My hotel is uber-far from the city center, so logistics have been tricky. I don’t think I’ll be able to take my scheduled day off, thus continuing my 3 week streak of working-at-least-once-every-24-hours. No complaints from this guy. The mere fact that I have the opportunity to travel to these locations is reason enough to work my tail off.

Baku – a name that could easily pass as a planet in Star Wars – is one of the oldest hubs of international oil activity. The industry was born here. Each day, over one million barrels of oil are extracted here. For some perspective, that’s more than enough to handle the daily consumption of the Netherlands. Intense. Because Azerbaijan was under Soviet rule for so long, most people speak Russian here, so the 10 words that I know have been moderately helpful. Aside from Russian, the local language, Azeri, is incredibly similar to Turkish. Everyone I have met is more than friendly, this is a great country. Below is a clip of me saying hello.

That was Nizami Street, one of the few pedestrian areas where one can escape the maniacal drivers, the honking, the noise.

Before a few more (long-awaited, I hope) visuals, allow me to include a brief digression…

Travel is often romanticized as an exotic escape from the normal way of life. Yes, that is often the case, as new sights, new smells, new people can be invigorating, uplifting, enlightening to one’s world experience. What we often forget to remember, though, is that traveling is tough. A short story to explain the oft-overlooked trials and tribulations of travel:

It was a long day at work and my fatigue, coupled with the cold, the rain, was getting the best of me. I decided to head back to the hotel. It was already 8pm, and I hadn’t sat down for a break in several hours. I hopped in a cab (it felt good to sit down), and luckily the driver knew where he was going this time. Back at the hotel, exhausted, eager to sit down for a refreshing brew and relax, I was astonished to see a hullabaloo of activity in the hotel dining room. Some conference or what not. Was told that there was no room for me in the restaurant, in my hotel’s restaurant, and was politely told to check out the bar upstairs for food. The elevator is broken, so I walk up five flights of stairs, only to find that, in an ironic twist of words, no one is to be found. No problem, though, as I had wanted to check out a small sandwich shop around the corner. I braved the rain and grabbed a quick bite to eat, happy that the elevator had been fixed upon my return. In my room, though, the heater had broken, and now, as I write this post, I’m waiting for it to be fixed. Will it be fixed?

You can’t make this stuff up. My spirits are high though. Check out the hat I bought today! I put it on to keep warm.

Notice anything? Not the best souvenir choice for an American.

One more – Baku from the top of the Hyatt Hotel.

Obama and Baku

Paperwork to be done, but a brief note on the election.

While I spoke with many passionate followers of American politics in Russia, the few people I’ve interacted with so far in Baku seem to be unaware of Obama’s victory. I chatted with my airport taxi pickup for 30 minutes, and only after we reached my hotel did I realize that our conversation didn’t cover politics. Virtually every English speaker that I have met in my travels so far has mentioned the presidential race, and given that the driver’s brother lives in Florida, I was a bit surprised. Another woman, fluent in English, working for one of the largest oil companies in the world, didn’t know who had won when I asked her this morning. Interesting. I will continue to probe the locals to get an Azerbaijani perspective on America’s latest decision.

Yekaterinburg, Russia

I know I promised pictures, but the Internet at this hotel is purchased in MB bandwidth, so uploading a photo or video is currently out of the question. As soon as I can get an unlimited connection, I’ll share the scenery.

On Friday, I met with realtor companies all day to get a snapshot of the rental market here in Yekaterinburg. While translation was a big issue (they kept referring to apartment complexes as “houses”, throwing me for a loop when I tried to clarify availability), the meetings largely went as planned. I had read about an expatriate happy-hour that takes place on Friday nights at the Atrium Palace, the only 5-star hotel in the region, so I planned my evening around that. I walked around the city for an hour or so, taking a few pictures and welcoming the cold weather. The hotel was barren upon arrival, with a few older couples drinking coffee in the lobby, so I went upstairs to the restaurant, hoping to run into some fellow English speakers that could help me better understand what it’s like for a foreigner to live in Yekaterinburg. Alas, I was disappointed, spotting only a few people seated down for dinner. Maybe I misinterpreted the happy-hour memo. I sat down and indulged myself with a medium-bodied cabernet and fish doused in pear sauce – what a life, eh? Just for fun, on the way out I poked my head in the bathroom and fascinated over the rose petals on the sink. Laughable.

When I woke up on Saturday, I discovered – much to my dismay – that President Medvedev decided to start a new annual holiday in the country. Apparently very few shops would be open on Sunday and Monday, so I had to shuffle around my schedule and push everything forward. It was an exhausting day. I still have yet to find out what the “Holiday of Equity” means. Are we supposed to wear masks, sing songs, eat special foods? Who knows.

Due to the holiday, Halloween was celebrated on Saturday night instead of Friday. I met my translator, Ksenia, and 5 of her friends at a bar called Keeer (yes, 3 e’s). One of them spent 5 years in the U.K. and effortlessly darted back and forth between Russian and English English – bilinguals never cease to amaze me. Even when the conversation wasn’t directed at me, everyone made an attempt to speak English, just so I could feel welcome. How’s that for Russian hospitality? After a few beers, vodka was ordered, and to be honest, my memory gets a little fuzzy after that. We ended up going to a medium sized club, where the head DJ was wearing a Darth Maul mask and reenacting the scene from Michael Jackson’s Thriller when I walked in. Oh, what a scene.

I paid for my late-night debauchery the next morning, when I couldn’t stomach water or food for the first half of the day. Late in the afternoon, I went to a megastore – think Costco on crack – to record more prices, spending several hours trying to navigate the aisles with Ksenia and her two friends who were helping me locate various items. When I finished work around 10:30pm, we all went to McDonald’s to celebrate (the double cheeseburger was phenomenal), then I was invited with them to drive to the Russian countryside for a few hours for a gathering of friends. It’s popular here to rent “bases”, or cheap motel rooms, in the countryside to throw parties during the winter. The ride took about 40 minutes, and when we got out of the car all I could see were a few buildings and many, many trees. Partying in the middle of the forest? Good stuff. I met more friends and drank more vodka (a recurring theme in this country), learning that alcohol, not English, is the world’s most understood language. Max, a friend who had not spoken English in 6 years, dragged me out to his car where we listened to Eminem and other American rap artists. He said I was a “cool guy,” and I patted him on the back and repeated the very same words.

I woke up this morning and went to the few stores that were open, making phone calls with Ksenia in the afternoon. It’s just after dinner and I have plenty of paperwork to do before tomorrow morning, when I catch a 6am cab to the airport. I’m meeting Ksenia and her friends in a few hours for some last minute drinks and goodbyes. In the meantime, I’ve got some work to do.

Signing off until Baku.

Welcome Russian Readers!

When I checked my Google Analytics statistics a few minutes ago, I was a bit shocked to see how many people had visited this site in the last 24 hours. After some digging, I learned that metkere.com, a popular Russian blog with over 300 regular subscribers, caught wind of my last post on Novosibirsk, particularly the part where Anatoli invited me over to his apartment for an Amway presentation of sorts. Their brief words, translated online:

Siberian hospitality
30.10.2008 04:23We read a blog post next ekspata, the will of fate caught up in Novosibirsk. Man writes about his impressions about the city and its residents. I want to laugh, cry, then laugh again. Our capsule translation:

The rest of the post was a piece of my last update, translated and slightly modified into Russian. How fascinating! To anyone reading in Russia: love your country so far! Yekaterinburg is a beautiful city, and as soon as I get my work done, I plan to do some exploring. It’s a shame I missed Russia’s largest zoo in Novosibirsk, and I plan to make up for it while I’m here in Yekaterinburg. If you happen to live here – and want to hang out – please get in touch with me at perlman(dot)alan(at)gmail(dot)com. I will be in town until November 4th.