Last weekend I had the distinct pleasure of visiting my aunt Rita at her new home in Baku, Azerbaijan (Rita is not actually a biological aunt, but she toes the line between aunt and godmother). Last year, Rita took a job for the Peace Corps as the country director of Azerbaijan, so she has been living in Baku, the capital, since last spring.
So, I figured that since I am in generally the same neck of the woods, it was an excellent opportunity to visit the ex-Soviet block and see my auntie.
The journey started exactly the way most adventures in Turkey start: poorly. I woke up at 5 am to catch my flight only to arrive at the airport and learn that it has been cancelled due to snow. So I found wifi at a cafe and spent the better part of 7 hours sitting in an airport. But, I did eventually get on a plane (if you ever get the chance, fly Turkish Air. They really are the best airline out there) and arrived in Baku late Thursday night.
From there I had a little bit more of an adventure in finding Rita's apartment with the cab driver who didn't speak much English, but alas, I showed up in Rita's warm abode late Thursday and my wonderful auntie had my favorite enchiladas warm and waiting for me. So, I got to sit down across from one of my favorite people in the world and eat one of my favorite meals. It solved every last ounce of homesickness that I may have had.
|It's always good to see Rita|
The next morning I woke up and wandered my way over to Rita's office. I met the people she works with and then we set out. Since the streets of Baku are overcrowded with SUVs and packed busses, Rita commutes mostly by foot, so that's what we did.
We wandered the streets, and ducked in and out of a few strange stores before arriving at 28 May, which is a giant shopping mall. Fortunately, Rita knows better than to take me into a shopping mall, but she did show me one thing that I found to be both hilarious and deeply disturbing:
|Yes, Baku is home to world's largest KFC. It's housed in a beautiful old 18th C building that they actually did a decent job of preserving. The inside still has beautifully frescoed ceilings, and the contrast between them and the Colonel induces a feeling something akin to nausea|
However, our purpose at 28 May (other than to visit the KFC) was to meet up with a local. Over the summer, my brother spent a few weeks staying in Baku with Rita and completing an internship at the American Center. There he met a couple of local Azerbaijanis, one of whom was named Ilkin.
Since I was going to be in Baku, I figured it would be a fun opportunity to meet up with Ilkin and get a taste for what Coop was up to over the summer. So, Rita dropped me off with my friend at the mall (it was little reminiscent of middle school) and together we set off through Baku. It turns out, Coop actually knows what he's doing, and Ilkin was a great host. He took me to his back-alley book publishing establishment. Ilkin has a group of friends, many of whom are bilingual in a variety of languages, and together they translate books into Azerbaijani and publish them. They have translated and published books from Russian, English, Spanish, and German. Keep in mind these kids are 19. I was very impressed.
We walked around and visited a few cool spots in the old city of Baku, a number of interesting reading rooms filled with anti-capitalist literature (which gently reminded me of what life is like in the ex-Soviet world), and had a tea.
|The Maiden Tower in old Baku. I imagined it was where Rapunzel was kept|
When I asked Ilkin about his political views, he identified himself as an anti-capitalist, but more moderate than a Communist. It was interesting to be in a place where people would actually call themselves anti-capitalist. Rita shared that most people think of the Soviet days (bear in mind, the USSR only fell about 20 years ago) as the golden days, and often become reminiscent and nostalgic when they come up. It sure makes me wonder just how much we have learned about Communism and the Soviets was propaganda.
|You can even buy rugs with ole' Vlad Lenin on them|
So I spent the evening with Ilkin and the Azerbaijani semi-Communist youth before catching bus back to Rita's place.
The next morning we rose and set out for another long day of exploring. Rita took me down to the nice boardwalk along the water (Baku is situated on the western edge of the Caspian Sea), and then back into the old city, where we visited some of Rita's favorite restaurants and carpet salesmen. We stopped for a great lunch of a cheese and spinach filled dough, the name of which I can't remember. But the pictures were nice:
|All these images are from the old city|
|This is just a nice looking doorway|
We returned to Rita's for another great dinner (this one pasta and chicken), and set out again for the newer area:
|This is a memorial to the soldiers who died in the liberation of Azerbaijan from the Soviets. An eternal flame.|
|And these are the Flame Towers. Three giant skyscrapers built, and lit, to look like flames. They are used as a symbol of the modernization of Baku|
|But the view of the city was my favorite.|
Then next morning we woke up and made Christmas cookies together, which I promptly ate all of. Rita got me into a cab and I was off to the airport and on my way back to Istanbul.