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Wednesday, March 09, 2005


I LOVE my Neva

"Oh, we'll just buy it for weekend excursions," we said.

"It's way too dangerous to drive in Baku," we thought.

Both of these assumptions have turned out to be false.

Sure, there are no apparent traffic laws other than "while you should feel free to run a red light at high speed while driving in the wrong lane, you absolutely cannot turn right on red," and "the car going the wrong way on a one-way street has the right of way."

The lack of rules -- and lanes -- is absolutely liberating. Driving in Baku is a blast and much, much less stressful than being a passenger. I have actually started driving the 20 blocks to my office, rather than using my driver. I am learning to ignore the stares.

Everyone knows that any woman who rides in the front seat of a car is a whore. A woman driving defies rational explanation. A foreign woman at the wheel of a NEVA is a sign of impending apocalypse.

The esteem in which my driver, Rashid, holds me increased exponentially after he followed me in his Volga. "I think American woman is too scared to drive in Baku!" he marveled. "Carpetblogger Xanim is a very good driver! Very fast!"

Some have suggested that he said this because I am his boss and reviews are coming up soon.

I even went to the gas station -- full serve, of course, like all civilized places. Gas is awfully expensive -- $10 to fill a Neva -- in a country that is sitting on some of the richest oil fields in the world. I said the Azeri equivalent of "Stop catching flies, boy, and fill 'er up with 96!" The "boy" ("malkchy" in Russian) is an important tool that should be used -- liberally -- to establish dominance over servants, such as waiters and gas station attendants.

Other than ignoring the gawking, the key to vehicular success is knowing that anything can happen at any time and it's up to you to be prepared for it. I learned this lesson driving in South Africa, so I feel very confident barreling around Baku in my little white tank.

Even if you do get pulled over by the "police", it will be for some completely arbitrary violation, like "speeding." The solution, as I understand it, is to:

Pay the bribe and be on your way;
Deny any common language with your interrogator until they give up and let you go;

The latter two will be my favored strategies. I'm sure there will be ample opportunity to discover which is most effective.

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