I rolled into the Baku train station early in the morning after 14 hours on a rickety Soviet-era train from Tbilisi in neighboring Georgia. I had barely slept, was groggy, and still nervous after my run-in with the Azeri border guards earlier that night. All I had was the name of a hotel and a whole wad of Georgian Lari in my hand. The Lonely Planet, a worthless piece of junk, provided me with little information on how to get to my hotel and said that I could anticipate the crowd of touts, money changers, and taxi drivers that awaited me as soon as I stepped off the train. Still, though, I was excited. I had always wanted to get to Azerbaijan. After a long time in Turkey, I was anxious to see just what their Turkic brothers were like, and I had longed to see the Caspian Sea. So, after gathering my bags, I hopped off the train.
Years living in the Middle East had prepared me for these sort of “shock” welcomes, the ones where the taxi drivers (both legal and illegal) pounce on the foreigner as soon as he appears, attempting to extract as much money as possible, but it doesn’t make it any easier. A friend of mine who had previously been to Baku warned me to be weary of the police who like to grab foreigners and drag them off for “bag searches” that invariably leave the traveler $10 short. In preparation, I put on my sternest face, looked straight ahead, and did my best to look like I knew where I was going. It didn’t help. The money changers flocked, as did the taxi drivers. I tried my best to shoo them away using my Turkish, but more and more came. Finally, I decided to stop. They only way I’d be left alone was if I chose one of them. I stopped and was immediately surrounded by money changers. I asked the rate for Georgian Lari, and they immediately decided to squabble. It became a veritable auction for my patronage. Finally, one guy won out. I gave him my remaining Lari and he changed them. He then asked in Azeri, “Don’t you have any dollars? I want dollars.” I told him that I didn’t have dollars. I told him I was Turkish and therefore didn’t carry dollars. A policeman started to walk over noticing the hubbub, but as soon as he got a few feet away and heard us arguing in Turkish, he backed off. I grabbed and taxi driver and walked away. It seems I had escaped.
The taxi driver led me to his car, brushing off any discussion of price, but I insisted that I wouldn’t get in unless he told me a price. The surrounding cabbies leaned in, intent on listening. “Ok, Ok,” he said, “$20.” I laughed and told him that was ridiculous. I offered him $5. He said $10. I repeated $5. “I will only give you five if you give it to me in dollars,” he said. I agreed and we were off. I later learned that the appropriate price was $2.
The taxi driver immediately entered into a conversation. “You speak English, yes?” He asked in English. I played dumb. One, I didn’t feel like being a foreigner today, and two, I wanted to try and pick up as much Azeri as possible. The language fascinated me. “No,” I don’t speak English, “I’m Syrian.” I returned to my default ethnicity when abroad. It always works, since Syrians can look like anything. “Oh, Syrian,” he responded, “so you are Muslim! Great! We are brothers then. Anything you want, just ask.”
I appreciated his newfound hospitality but decided to give him a cultural lesson instead. “I’m Christian,” I responded. A sense of confusion came over his face, “But, you’re Arab, how can you be Christian!” At that point I gave him a lecture on Christians in the Arab world. “No matter, “ he said, “you’re Eastern, like us, and you are my guest.” His Turkic hospitality began to shine, but then it took a turn for the worse.
”Are you from Aleppo?” He asked, and immediately I realized where he was going with this. I told him I was from Damascus. He nodded and then sat quietly, like he had a question he wanted to ask but didn’t know how. Finally it came, “There are a lot of Armenians."