5 things I think I think about Azerbaijan

(with apologies to Sports Illustrated NFL writer Peter King)

1. Cats are great city animals.

Cat on car.

Cat on car.

At one time, Baku was rat country, so I’ve been told. Someone decided to fix the problem by either introducing cats to the streets or firing all the cat-catchers. You don’t see many rats around nowadays.

Cats are everywhere. They stand guard outside the markets, scurry beneath the tables inside the posh furniture stores, sleep atop parked BMWs, pick through garbage, and mew in the hallway of my apartment building. A friend here started adopting street cats and now has seven in her flat.

Coming from New York, I’ve always held up pigeons (and to a lesser extent, squirrels) as the best city animals. And I’ve always taken rats for granted. But cats, quiet and clean, are, to me, the new gold standard.

2. Traffic laws are outstanding.

So THAT'S what a seatbelt is for...

So THAT'S what a seatbelt is for...

As a car owner, I have some ambivalence about traffic laws. I hate parking tickets. Sometimes I find a 65 mph speed limit to be ­— idealistic. And I’ve sent the occasional text message at a red light.

So I write this fully aware that I am a hypocrite: traffic laws are outstanding.

I’ve been in countries with bad drivers before. The drivers of India and Pakistan and Bangladesh don’t deserve any medals. But there, because it’s generally poorer and warmer, the streets are jammed with every sort of vehicle: hand-pulled, bicycle and motorized rickshaws, scooters, buses, trucks and cars, not to mention a variety of livestock.

So bad driving is mitigated by 1) self-preservation (as you can get thrown from a rickshaw pretty easily) and 2) weak engines. It’s hectic, lawless traffic, but it’s not that fast.

Azerbaijan, in contrast, has hectic, lawless, fast traffic. People are generally driving cars, buses or trucks, and good cars, too, not Tata Nanos, but Benzes.

And because cars are the only thing on the road and cars are expensive, if you’re driving at all here, you’re a big deal. That, in turn, means you shouldn’t have to break for any commoner on foot. Nor should you approach a blind turn through a narrow, residential alley at less than 50 mph.

It’s not that right-of-way is ambiguous here: the cars have it. I guess I’ve been spoiled living in places where cars break for pedestrians, but I find the traffic here beyond aggravating. Everyone uses their car horns constantly to express anger, and tricked-out horn upgrades (the “air horn” and the “Godfather theme” being ubiquitous) are mandatory.

What’s optional? Seatbelts. Headlights at night. Child safety seats. Staying within the solid double-lines on a highway. Most people with kids have them ride on their laps in the front passenger seat, their little faces pressed to the windshield.

On a recent road trip, we passed a roadkill horse (!), two dead dogs, and a brick truck that had lost its bricks on the way out of Baku. On the way back, we saw a dead person in the road (!!). No wonder everyone stops at the mosque just outside of town to make an offering to Allah thanking Him for a safe ride!

3. Russian is hard.

Three genders? Six cases? I’ve been studying for two months and still don’t know what a case is.

4. All politics is local.

So said Tip O’Neill, long-serving Speaker of the House.

Case in point. In America, we fought a “cold” war with Russia from the mid-1940s to 1991. There is still hatred and fear of Russia in some parts of our political sphere (ask Sen. John McCain how he likes the Russians).

We also have as our enemies the “Axis of Evil”: Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Iraq, of course, is now are ward. North Korea is flirting with giving up the bomb. But Iran appears to be carrying on as a threat, with worried talk in the news magazines and Sunday morning talk shows over when it will get nukes and what it will do with them.

So here I am in Azerbaijan, sandwiched between Putin and Ahmadinejad. Azeris don’t care. There’s nothing too frightening about either. They may not always have nice things to say about their neighbors to the north and south, but Americans aren’t always that charitable with Canada and Mexico, either. Anyway, Azeris have reserved 100 percent of their negative energy for their neighbor to the west: Armenia.

The cause is a dispute over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which took the form of a war in the late ’80s and ’90s and now is the source of much saber-rattling, but little fighting. Some 800,000 Azeris were displaced by the loss of the territory, and bettering their lives is a major part of microfinance here.

It’s less of an axis and more of a singularity of evil. And, sadly, it’s no exaggeration to say that dislike of the Armenians is nearly universal and is strong. I don’t know, there’s some axiom here that fits, one man’s jelly is another man’s jam or something…

5. Bribes suck.

I finally paid one, last week. Sixty manat (about $75). It wasn’t, like, spiritually degrading or anything, but it was 60 AZN that I’m not going to be spending on candy and DVDs.


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