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Thursday, December 30, 2004


So What Will You do With Your 3 Microseconds?

Apparently, as a result of the Sumatra quake, the rotation of the earth slowed enough so that if you aren't currently a bloated corpse lying in the streets of Aceh or Sri Lanka, you got an extra three microseconds as a late Christmas gift. What are you going to do with this stroke of good fortune?

Now if you're going to quibble with me and aruge that earth's rotation actually speeded up and humanity lost three microseconds, then we're all that much closer to stepping off this mortal coil. What are you going to do about that?

The Producer and I stayed in Khao Lak, a resort town where 700-800 tourists are presumed lost, when we visited Thailand in 2001. There, we saw the biggest spider I've ever seen. It was bigger and a lot hairier than my hand. It's probably dead now, too.

Anyway, I'm going to bank my three microseconds, if such an action is allowed under current rules, and use them for little extra shopping time in Dubai this weekend.

If you've forgotten which frivolously wealthy Emirate Dubai is, it's the one with the Burj-al Arab hotel -- built on fill in the Persian Gulf in the form of a sail boat. Rooms rent for $5000 a night. We aren't staying there. Indeed, I believe we're actually at the Gar-baj-al Arab.

Dubai has been described as the "New York of the Arab World" (accurate, if by New York you mean, "place where the sale of liquor is technically illegal"). More truthfully, Dubai combines the surface wholesomeness of Disneyland and the tacky debauchery and whorishness of Vegas.

So why did we chose Dubai for our three-day parole?

In ordinary times, Dubai's style wouldn't hold much appeal to us, but we are starved for decent restaurants with good service (of which there are countless) and arenas in which we can succumb to our pent up consumer impulses. These are more commonly known as western-style supermarkets and shopping malls. Dubai has one on every corner.

No one can say that we're deprived here in Baku. There is really nothing we need that we can't get here, even if it's a little pricey.

There are two things I really miss though.

First, I miss things (consumer goods, advertisements, store displays, public spaces, clothes, shoes, apartments, furniture) that are nicely designed and attractive, to which your eye is drawn and wants to linger. In Baku, everything is utilitarian, chaotic, decaying, "Kitaiski" (which is Russian for "Chinese" and is a derogatory term for cheap crap), hopelessly sentimental or riotously vulgar.

Second, I miss choice and predictability. Of course I can get shampoo at countless drugstores here. But what I want is wide aisles devoted to neatly arranged, nicely designed, colorful bottles and packages of frippery and snake oil. I don't necessarily want to buy that stuff, but if I do, it's nice to know it's there, every single time.

What I really want is a Target, with its wide aisles, eye candy, constant supply and down-market Isaac Mizrahi shoes and clothes.

True, there are other western countries where it is much easier to get a drink and camel racing isn't the most popular sport, but none of them is 70 degrees and a cheap two hour flight away on AZAL (Azerbaijan Airlines).

Happy New Year. Will post pictures of the center of Arab commerce when we return!

Tuesday, December 28, 2004


Soundtrack for Disaster

25,000 of the poorest people in the world are swept out to sea under sunny skies and gentle winds in a truly random act of violence.

I hate the premise of that Africa Christmas song with the white hot passion of 1000 suns, but one line conveys something other than paternalistic, culturally ignorant, faux sentimentality. It's the only honest line in the whole song.

Tonight, thank god it's them, instead of you.

Because, really, but for the grace of whatever deity you worship, or pure dumb luck, go you. Or me. Or any of us who were lucky to be born where we were, rather than toeing the ragged edge of disaster every single day of our short lives. Feel fortunate.

Should you feel so inclined, here's a link to Mercy Corps. It's rated one of the nation's most efficient charities, encourages sustainable development, and I like the guy who runs the operation here in Baku.

Monday, December 27, 2004


Restaurant Review: Pork Chop Shop

Azeris are not very good Muslims. During their 70 years of rule, the Soviets did their best to scrub the stain of piety from the fabric of Azeri society. As a result, not many Azeris have a firm grasp on the five pillars of Islam, few visit mosques regularly and even fewer fast at Ramadan.

The Soviets were only partially successful. The rituals and theology have faded, but Islam's traditions still hold a great deal of sway over the culture. The social role of women, for example, is tightly proscribed. Many Azeris avoid alcohol. Pigs are very, very rare. In fact, I've seen fat sows lolling around only in the rural village of Nic, whose residents consider themselves Christian.

So where does the average Rashid go when he needs a pork fix?

The Pork Chop Shop, a tiny restaurant in the center city, is Muslim Baku's swine speakeasy.

Nothing about its dowdy exterior hints at the forbidden fruit served inside. The restaurant has a real name -- Xayal, which means "Dream" in Azeri -- but the informal "Pork Chop Shop" helps keep expections in check. No one will ever confuse the Pork Chop Shop with any of the countless Kebabarias and Pivesis that make up Baku's dining scene. Nor, for that matter, will it be confused with anyone's perception of a dream.

Other than its chops, the restaurant has little to recommend it. It's located on a chaotic street near the train station, tucked among cell phone vendors and currency exchanges. It's furnished, like nearly every other cheap restaurant in the developing world, with white molded plastic chairs and tables that tip over too easily and discourage lingering. When not full of jonesing expats, the clientele consists of Azeri men sit huddled in small groups amid clouds of cigarette smoke. Like most small restaurants, it is not a place for a respectable Azeri woman.

There is no menu and no choice. If you don't want chops, walk on by. There is no bacon, no tenderloin, no sausage and no medallions. Nothing but chops.

As a known swinophobe, I was skeptical of the ability of a Muslim cook to properly prepare a chop. I don't eat pork at home and when it comes to food on the road, my policy is to eat what locals eat and avoid things they don't. But for every rule there must be an exception and even I could see that these chops were worth the small risk of trichinosis.

All Azeri restaurant meals come with a plate of herbs, some pickles, bread and white sheep cheese, and depending on the season, salads composed mostly of cucumbers and tomatoes. These small plates at the Pork Chop Shop were completely unremarkable -- bread stale, pickled cabbage and tomato lifeless and portions of cheese skimpy.

Oh, but the chops. These are not your mother's chops (or, well, not my mother's. Sorry mom). They are as long as your forearm, with a thick fist of glossy meat at the end. This meat isn't dull white or gristly or dry as a dishtowel. It is carmel colored and dappled with the hot, rich fat that pools up in the pan after you fry up your bacon. Cooked over an open fire, the fatty edge of the chop has a thin crust, no harder to break than that on a creme brulee.

Pork Chops and Liquor

The meat falls off the bone, which is good, since there's no cutlery. Just grab a greasy chop of the platter and start to gnaw.The platters keep coming until to you cry "uncle."

Upholding its non-sectarian values, the Pork Chop Shop places no restrictions on smoking cigarettes and drinking vodka, either (though, truthfully, I've yet to find an Azeri restaurant that does). Customers can hit a Muslim trifecta without leaving their molded plastic chair.

Price is no obstacle, even for the most impecunious. All-you-can-eat chops along with all-you-can-drink vodka and beer will set you back no more than five Shirvan ($10).

This chop shop is worth going out of your way for. Even to Baku.

Sunday, December 26, 2004


Donkeys and Melons

Cause more deaths every year than plane crashes.

Think about it.

That was an ad for National Geographic we just saw on BBC. It featured black and white footage of a donkey cartload full of watermelons rolling downhill.


Friday, December 24, 2004


Carpet Talk

This first one is from Southern Azerbaijan -- Lankoran. It's unusual, which is why I am willing to overlook its flaws. You wouldn't think its greens, pinks and oranges work well together, but they do. I especially like the flames on the fourth border, which is very typically Azeri. It's currently my favorite. The longer it's on my floor, the more I like it.

Lankoran Carpet

This is a Sumac from Dagestan. Dagestan is just over the northern border with Azerbaijan. The Russians think it's part of Russia, but the Dagestanis have a different view. We can't go there since there are a lot of Chechens stirring the shitpot, but that doesn't mean you can't buy their carpets. This design is pretty much a dime a dozen here, but I like it. I especially like that Svetlana wove her name into the border (you can't see it in this photo). The dog lying on it is Mo, and the brown pattern is the ugly carpet underneath.

Dagestan Sumac

This Guba carpet is currently my least favorite. (See, I pick favorites, just like you do with your children.) It's got an unusual pattern, but it's not very traditional. Guba is in the north of Azerbaijan, near the border with Dagestan, and is one of the primary carpet producing areas of Azerbaijan.

Guba Carpet


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?

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