Well Friends, all good things must come to an end including a CLS summer in Azerbaijan and my travel blog about it. Seeing as I have now been back in the States for 2 weeks, I feel as though I should probably wrap this up since I must now return to school work and what is generally referred to as "real life". Though goodness knows Holland MI seems unreal enough. I went into a butcher shop the other day and was so disconcerted by the fact that it smelled good. I couldn't quite figure it out. Anyway, I thought a good way to end this would be a couple of choice stories from my trip to Sheki, Lahic and Basqal. I had considered doing a sort of Top 10 list of do's and don'ts for Azerbaijan but then I remembered that I still have no idea what the do's are so it would be best not to give advice to budding travelers. I will let you figure it out for yourselves because Azerbaijan is one of those places that cannot easily be fit into a box of "pretty/historical/adventure/eco-friendly/ridiculous-type tourism". It defies definition and boxes. It kicks off the fetters of understanding and categorization. Perhaps they got sick of the Soviet attempt at order. I find it more likely however that all the successive waves of invasion, domination, and assimilation into the culture now called Azerbaijani left the nation too distinct, unique and quirky to be contained in a single glib paragraph in a travel journal. You could fill volumes and still not quite explain the nuances of the nation. Luckily I will spare you the volumes and just get straight to work.
As with all good Azerbaijani road trips, we (the students, teachers and administrators of CLS Baku 2012) got off to a late start from the random park where we were holding class one last time. The bus we took had enough seats, so long as you used the fold down ones which turned the center aisle into not an aisle. Then we put our stuff in the rest of the pretend aisle. I do not think that fire and safety regulations hold much sway. Then the Azerbaijani pop got put on and the singing/dancing/finger snapping began. No quiet roadtrip for us. We were going to do this the right way. And so the Americans put in their ipods, turned the volume up and tried to pretend that we were on an American roadtrip where everyone is anti-social and sleeps unless they are driving. A couple of hours in and we reached the region of Samaxi where the hills on either side of the road were conscientiously decked out with Heydar Aliyev quotes about the region. I think it adds a nice flair to any road/park/underpass/billboard/mural/public space. Then we stopped for chay, because that is what you do. We went into the garden of the chayxana rather than staying in the front, (seemingly) male-only section. They seemed to have a good number of healthy looking dogs milling about and we drank our chay, ate the proffered cold pizza and mused about the derelict and ever so slightly creepy looking building just beyond the long table we were sitting at. We chatted explored and stretched our legs before once again boarding the bus to continue the adventure. Once in Sheki (6 hours after setting off) we had a short class and some adventure time in our hotel which was a renovated medieval karavansaray. Its many nooks and crannies made for fantastic views and the manicured garden in the center provided a lush and somewhat idyllic backdrop to the whole evening. Luckily the water heater was such that I didn’t get a hot shower, because too much perfection can and will spoil a place. It’s like how every piece of art, whether it be a painting, carpet or quilt should have an imperfection in it, to make the whole all the more beautiful. I feel the same way about places where I live and stay. It is the difficulties and frustrations that highlight the truly good, lovely and joyful parts of an adventure.
The next day in Sheki we spent hectically running from one place to another, going to the Sheki Xan Sarayi (The Khan’s Palace) the history museum, which housed some of the best Soviet kitsch I am ever likely to see, the ethnographic museum, an artist’s workshop where they still make shebeke by hand. Shebeke are a type of Azerbaijani stained glass windows where between the pieces of colored glass pieces of wood are used rather than lead. It is exceptionally intricate hand work, especially since no nails are used in the windows. I would have the patience to do it for about 30 seconds. I admittedly lost my patience for a short while after our visit to the History Museum. In Azerbaijan it seems as though it is impossible to see a museum without a guided tour. Since we were with the program this meant that the tours were all in Azerbaijani. I do not mind that they were in Azerbaijani. However, I am not a good tour group member. I wander off. I like to go at my own pace and have the tendency to spend inordinate amounts of time in museums, especially history museums. Being raised by two historians has this effect on a child. Show me something from the bronze age and I start to salivate. So I was done with the whole guided tour thing and I was also getting pretty dehydrated from the whole adventure. And then we made it to the 18th century room and the tour kind kindly explained to us in Azerbaijani how to use a flintlock musket by saying that they were very slow and difficult to use. I was almost ready to break the glass in the case, take one of the muskets off of their rack, and show her how to use the thing for real. I kept the urge in check seeing as I thought this might be frowned upon but something just snapped because I was so sick of people assuming I was ignorant and not that bright due to my speaking ability in Azerbaijani. Also, I missed my musket at home. Sometimes a girl just needs her gun.
We also visited an abandoned fortress on the outskirts of Sheki that day. We wandered through an Istiharet Merkezi (relaxation center or type of resort common in Azerbaijan where people hang out, sleep eat and drink chay on holidays) and then wandered down this long road, got to another, less ritzy Istirahet Merkezi from which a young man offered to show us to the fortress because we were obviously lost. He took us up the trail which wandered through a restaurant where we picked up a small dog we called Rufushka that accompanied us for the rest of the hike before getting to the real trail which consisted of scrabbling up a hillside devoid of vegetation and keeping from falling off by clinging to tree roots. I do not know who could have possibly wanted that hillside quite so badly but they would have earned it by the time they reached the top. The view was spectacular though. The whole structure was grandly crumbling on its mountainside. The deep walls had now become steps for the adventurous to climb up and look over the entire valley that encased the town and look out over the mountains and deserts beyond. It was a place meant for contemplation, where you could sit in silent companionship with your fellow students, soldiers or pilgrims and contemplate whatever it is that comes to your mind in those quiet moments between the frenetic thinking and doing that accompanies any era. For as much of a pain as it was to get to, I was glad that we had gone. It reminded me that our group had reached that level of intimacy that words weren’t necessary when we were together. Sitting together was enough.
Then we get to the bulk of our story. Because the next day we went to Lahic, my own personal paradise of Azerbaijan. We took the road from Sheki to Baku but after 3 or 4 hours we turned off onto a dirt track that was at its widest perhaps a lane and a half. It clung to the side of mountains precariously but also without fear. Local mashrutkas (buses, though to call some of these vehicles buses is to be extremely generous) and trucks where the open back was filled with men and women riding to the next destination, wherever that may be, lumbered along, blithely ignoring the enormous drop-off that awaited them within 2 feet of their wheels. At one point one of the American students asked what the Azerbaijani word for “guardrail” was. When the question “what is that?” echoed back he decided that it didn’t exist. Always a comforting thought. I was more afraid that the engine of our bus would overheat (it seemed exceptionally close at times to doing just that) and that we would have to get out and push it. We were spared any type of catastrophe though and after a solid hour of driving along more and more remote but spectacularly beautiful terrain we pulled into Lahic and stepped into a fairy tale. To get to our hotel we had to cross a small stream and trek up a cobblestoned hill. However since this is Azerbaijan and everyone is the most agreeable person that you have ever met some of the young men waiting with pack horses for moving supplies in this region without true roads obliged another student and I by taking us up the hill on their horse which sported neither saddle nor stirrups. We arrived in style but not without almost falling off into the stream. We spent the afternoon wandering the streets of this unapologetically photogenic and touristic town. We wandered past a blue wooden mosque at the top of a hill and went beyond to a pasture outside of town and watched the sun dip lower in the sky and horses grazed and men a short walk away dug a fresh grave for a resident. We sat in the grass and stared out over the town, its sluggish river and the majestic Caucasus Mountains towering over us not to cause fear but more in a motherly protective manner, reassuring us that they were still there, looking after us and keeping us within their fold. In Lahic the children did not find me terrifying and responded to our “Salams” with joy. Most Lahic residents speak both Azerbaijani and Tat, a language related to Persian and so our poor Azerbaijani and fairness seemed not to spark any special interest. We purchased some Georgian pear flavored pop and wandered down to the river to watch as people rounded up their cows for the end of the day and brought them back up to their family compounds. We waved at all the vehicles that passed us, and one man pulled his ancient jeep up and opened his door to chat. He asked about who we were and what we were doing in Azerbaijan. We sat on a retaining wall and he nestled comfortably in his car. He moved only to get off the road so that a mashrutka could pass him on the one lane gravel road. I listened for a time and then turned my attention to the man’s face. During our conversation the topic of age had come up and I had learned that he was 26 and had lived in Lahic for all of his life. But as I studied him closely I noticed the deep lines that crossed and recrossed his deep mahogany-colored skin. His skin was loose and in places shrunken, his teeth could have used the work of a good dentist and orthodontist and there was certain age old weariness in his eyes that bespoke of sorrow, profound exhaustion but also a truly full life. He was in his own way as beautiful as the landscape where he had lived in his own life. He was not conventionally pretty, in fact those who did not look closely might have said he was not attractive at all. And he had his own manner of problems, obvious and unspoken but carved into the contours of his body and face. His life had not been an easy one: that was evident. Yet he invited us to come and spend a night in his home with his family, to get to know them better and to share his bread. We were half a dozen foreigners sitting on a cement wall in a river bottom, communicating in broken Azerbaijani with a man about our own age but who seemed decades older. He would have taken us with him to, had we agreed and wanted to go along with him. We thought about it too, spending time with Azerbaijanis is probably one of the most enjoyable experiences of my entire life. They want so badly for you to be happy. But you can only take so much from a country and a people. I took so much this summer, drinking deeply from the culture, hospitality and love of the people of this land. Sometimes you must realize that your appetite has been sated and stop despite the fact that it just tastes so good. And sometimes you must stop and leave something for your host. Or perhaps it is just that you want to leave something to come back to for the next time, whenever that time may come along.