Saturday, 25 April 2009

Fountains, lights and garbage




What is not much fun is that the pound is so low right now. On top of that, the local currency (manat) is suspiciosly high and stable.

My trip to Baku therefore, is turning out a lot more expensive than ever. I used to come here and feel rich. But the combination of the pound falling off its pedestal, coped with manat staying high is deadly. I even did something today that I had not done in this country for about 15 years- took a bus.

I got inside the crowded vehicle, and stood there, balancing bravely, as the vehicle bounced its way through uneven roads. An older Azeri lady sitting on the seat just below, asked me in Russian if I would like her to hold my handbag for me. And I thought- that is just so Baku. It is something I could never imagine anyone ask me back in London. I would love to try it on the tube one day, just to see the reaction. But here, it was a genuine gesture- an offer of help.

It is impossible for me to be here again, after 2 years, and not talk about all the changes. But it also is impossible to describe in one posting, everything that is going through my head as I look around. I guess, I could summarize it in one word- contrast.
The contrast is overwhelming, and is everywhere. Between the rich and the poor. Between the polished up front streets with their lit up and cleaned up buildings, and the back yards- filthy with garbage, flying plastic bags, and holes in roads. Millions of pounds worth of cars- a selection more impressive than anywhere I have seen before, and the old-fashioned buses, packed with the poor.

The locals complain that the construction dust penetrates their lungs. They complain about the works all over the city, new buildings, the polishing of the old ones, and everything else. But I have to admit, I personally kind of like the new look. It looks beautiful. Parks with fountains that light up at nights, new (and expensive looking) benches everywhere...But of course, there is a sad element to it all. I miss the old Baku I knew as a child. And as all the buildings and streets get a face lift, I miss the history and the character of the old stones. But I am just getting too sentimental.

And yet, there are things that remained the same. The massage I had today was still as brutal as I remember them being. And the chushkas still blow their noses in their fingers and flick the result off on pavements. There still is no notion of the personal space or queuing in shops.
And there are still nice ladies who will offer to hold my bag. And the youngsters will always get up so my child could take their seat on a bus. New facade. Old Baku. It is fun to be back.

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