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Friday, December 24, 2004


Don't Drive Like a Tchoutchka

So you worry about our safety here in Baku?

Let's get something straight. There are three things that are truly dangerous here: riding in cars; walking in a place where cars might appear and walking on crumbling sidewalks at 3 am after a night of heavy drinking. The latter problem presents an acceptable level of risk.

The former two require skill, balls and a healthy dose of denial to manage.

Azeris do not acknowledge internationally-recognized traffic control symbols. This includes lanes, stop lights, crosswalks (there aren't any anyway), yield signs, one-way signs or speed limits. An Azeri driver, usually in a black mercedes, will not hesitate to drive down the opposite lane of traffic at 60 mph to pass a long line of cars stopped at a red light. It is also not unacceptable to drive up on a sidewalk to avoid a line of cars waiting at a light.

Every rush hour, gridlock paralyzes downtown Baku because no one will stop at a light. Intersections become immobile, interlocking puzzles of Ladas, Volgas, Zhigulis, Mercedes and SUVs, all honking with bitter, self-induced frustration.

Horn use is epidemic. In the nanosecond it takes for the electrical impulse to pass from the red light to the blinking yellow light that indicates "put it in gear," the horns start. Because drivers have become immune to the common horn, many have upgraded to new and improved horn packages. These include flashing strobes, police sirens, machine gun fire and unidentifyable squwaks that are activated by a simple flick of a lever next to the steering wheel.

All of this makes a simple act of crossing the street a crapshoot. Smart pedestrians behave like drivers, ignore traffic signals and seize any opening, even if that means standing in the middle of a four lane highway or weaving in and out of slow-moving traffic like Frogger.

Much of this bad behavior, I believe, is a result of Caucasian he-manism. (Let's make another thing clear --95% of drivers are men. Women rarely even ride in the front seat and hardly ever drive. I saw a woman taxi driver once and nearly fainted). No one tells an Azeri man where he can put his car. No one tells an Azeri man with a car that he can't go first. When approaching an uncontrolled intersection, my driver actually speeds up to ensure he gets there first. Successful driving in Baku requires a level of agression and defensiveness that would serve one well in a cell block at San Quentin.

It also the case that, if there are traffic laws, no one knows what they are. Drivers' licenses in Azerbaijan, like university degrees, are sold, not earned. Add this to the influx of refugees and country people who come to Baku with no skill in anything whatsoever, including driving cars, and you've got vehicular chaos.

So what can you do about this? First, embrace the reality of life without rules. If everyone lives their lives expecting a Volga to weave in and out of traffic going the wrong way, no one is taken aback when it actually happens. It's a skill that's necessary anywhere in the developing world: if you accept that at any time, you can come upon a motorcycle in the center lane of a highway going 20 mph with 36 live chickens hanging by their feet or a herd of sheep standing in the middle of the road, you're much better able to avoid it and not cause a fiery pile up.

Or, if you're a do-gooder like The Producer, you think up ways you can solve the problem. Let's see. Why not make a PSA?

Let's follow the creative process: what does an Azeri hate more than anything?

To be accused of being uneducated or from the country.

How about an ad that features an overloaded Lada weaving drunkenly, driving on the wrong side of the downtown city street, scattering pedestrians and chickens and cats and bags of garbage. The tagline: Don't Drive Like a Tchoutcka (Russian for "country person."). We think it would be pretty effective.

Tchoutchka in Motion

The Producer also wants to create bumper stickers that read "Honk if You Love Armenia" and, in an unsanctioned guerilla operation, place them on bumpers late at night. (As a result of the Nagorno-Karabagh war in the early '90's, Azeris view Armenians as personification of the devil himself, and really, not unjustly). Either the honking would immediately stop, or another war would start. It may be a chance worth taking.

So, in spite of all this (or perhaps because of it), we have bought a car. This will open avenues of new and unpredictable adventures for us, not just because:

What better time to start a blog, no? Want to go for a ride?

So how does your driving compare to a tchoutcka's?
quote"As a result of the Nagorno-Karabagh war in the early '90's, Azeris view Armenians as personification of the devil himself, and really, not unjustly)" Really? Is that so? Is that your carefully considered judgement?
PS Is it that your fotos are so bad or are your carpets really so mediocre?
PPS get a driver for your car like everyone else
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