Wednesday, 21 March 2018

A Beauty and the Beasts

I have to confess that the story I am about to share with you was meant to be written last summer, after my trip to Azerbaijan. I just never got round to it, really. 

No, there is another reason. It is maybe a little critical of my home country. And I have stopped being critical about it, as some of you might have noticed, for a while now. Not because I am afraid of all those aggressive nationalists attacking me- as they always do. And not for any other reason, but for the fact that I have been feeling quite positive about Baku and Azerbaijan in the recent years. I simply enjoyed going back every summer, and had very little negative to say.

Especially, about Illisu, which is a beautiful, lovely place. I wrote about it before here

So, because of my overall very positive experience in the region, I deliberately missed this one particular experience out .

While we stayed in Illisu, we of course, visited surrounding places of interest. Mainly waterfalls and pretty, you know, lakes and mountains. The trips were organised by the owner of the small resort we were staying at. However, there was one place which, for some reason, not many other residents were keen on going to. It was a little more expensive than the other organised trips, and when I enquired why, I was told that the place is located so high and deep into the mountains that only an uazik could get there. Don't you love Russian terms of endearment? Uazik is filled with affection as opposed to just calling it UAZ.

Now, I have not been in an UAZ since forever, if ever. Wow, I thought. So you're telling me there is some hidden sulphuric baths place deep in the mountains where no vehicles can reach except for a military soviet jeep? I am SO going there! 

I was also told it required a lot of hiking across rivers and rocks, and is really quite far.
That didn’t really turn me off either. Let’s go!I said to my mother. Yalla! We must! 

It was, in fact, a fascinating, amazing experience. First of all, when they said "off-road" they meant OFF ROAD.  

Uazik was old. It was made during Soviet times and has since lived a good, active life. The seats were worn out, and the roads were rough. We then reached the river. The river was fast! Well, I thought, we probably are going along it. But no, Uazik plunged happily in like an overenthusiastic submarine. Children screamed. This is exactly that kind of a moment when you appreciate the argument for legalisation of marijuana.

I tried to focus on the gorgeous scenery. The height of that grass! The flowers everywhere!

Finally, after probably forty minutes or so of Uazik's swimming and climbing rocks, we stopped. 'From here, we walk.' Our skinny, toothless driver announced. Fortunately, he volunteered to go with us. 

When I saw the first bridge I realised once again this was a proper adventure. An adventure akin to the one in Annihilation. The kind you know you might not return from.

But, again…the scenery. The scenery kept me going. As we made our way climbing on rocks, crossing flimsy handmade bridges, I kept my mind on the final destination. Somehow, having lived abroad for too long, I expected…. I honestly don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect to find what I found. I guess what I assumed was that, a place as cool as that, with some miraculously therapeutic sulphur water that cures many diseases- to the extent of, according to the local legends, turning you almost immortal or, at the very least, restoring long lost virginity... would have been set up as some sort of cool resort, you know? I mean, if I had the money, I would have bought that place and set it up  with private pools, changing rooms and some cafe selling kale and wheat grass juices, for some fat rich foreigners and locals to waste their money on. And maybe you will argue now that untouched beautiful nature places are the best? Ha! This place, sadly, was not entirely untouched, that is the problem. Just touched by ignorant idiots determined to ruin something beautiful their country had to offer.

The mountains were everywhere, right there; you could touch them on both sides. The further up we climbed, the darker it got, as the mountains kept closing in on us from all sides. The pathway was getting narrower and narrower; the air was getting cooler and damper as if we were in the cave. A dream home for Shelob, I thought.

And then I started noticing signs of other humans. Thank goodness, I thought at first. But then, I wasn’t so sure. What is happening here? I asked our guide. There were people cooking and washing their underwear next to some shacks made out of cupboard boxes. Do these people camp here? Then I saw a used nappy someone chucked on one of those beautiful rocks. There were paper cups, chicken bones and pieces of bread littering the place. The closer we came to the actual sulphur baths, the dirtier it was getting. There was also more and more people everywhere. And they were all staring.
Don’t care what you think of me for what I am about to say, but those people were scary. They were as scary as cannibal aborigines or the walking dead. As we finally reached the final destination I realised this was not a tourist place at all. It was a mountain with a hole in it. With two separate entrances of course, for men and women. There were a couple of old geezers guarding the holes. I tried to figure out what was going on. Everybody stopped talking at the sight of me in my ripped knee-length denim shorts and two blond western looking children. Dead silence followed. Excuse me, my mother asked in Azeri. What is the system here? How do we get to bath here?



Finally, our guide discovered there was some not very obvious yet a waiting line there, and should we choose to wait, we could be number 98. 

As the old babushkas, both Georgian and Azeri ( the place is right on the border with Georgia) in what appeared as three or four cardigans each with holes in them started coming closer to look at my children and touch their hair, I decided I had to escape while still possible. My mother was not as easily intimidated. 'Come on!', she said. "We made it all this way! I have to at least glance inside the cave!"

Inside looked gross. You couldn't see much for the steamy darkness that smelled of rotten eggs. It was a small cave with a dark murky stinky water where- wait for it- a group of 8 people were allowed a turn, to sit in- absolutely naked- for twenty minutes. I have no idea but I hope!!! the water somehow was running through, and that those people were not stewing in the same stagnant sulphur yuckiness that the previous groups of 8 sat. Naked. 

We are leaving, I said to my excited mother. Now.

We made our way through the staring zombies down and back to our UAZ. 

Here I could have paused to tell you another story about a couple of local men running to the river to watch us swim in our bikinis, and me telling them to eff off in my limited, polite Azeri…But let's not. Enough said.

I want to end this story on a positive note, somehow. I am sure that one day- I probably won't live to see it- my Azeri countrymen will realise what a stunning, amazing place they are sitting on. A Klondike of natural beauty, with tones of potential. Something like that sulphur baths place, anywhere in the world would have been privatised long ago, and made into a fancy expensive resort where no locals could ever afford to go. Instead, they have this amazing chance to enjoy it all for free. Absolutely, entirely for free. And, instead of feeling grateful, they come and rape it, leaving behind shitty nappies and dirty plastic bags. Absolutely disgusting.

The end. 

Monday, 12 March 2018

Happiness is...

A friend of mine was giving me an advice the other day. We were talking about my total inability to save any money. I spend it all, always! I said to her and she listed a bunch of things that I often talk about me doing, which she finds a total waste of money. Like having a party and inviting people over. Look, she said. You keep telling me you end up inviting people more often than they ever invite you! And you know why, right. Is because they are smart and saving for their future, while you are like, you know, that stupid butterfly. 

The butterfly reference (for those of you without soviet background) is from a very famous old fable by Krilov, “A dragonfly and an ant”. It basically tells a story about a dragonfly (actually, a butterfly makes so much more sense here, no idea why he never thought to use it instead of a dragonfly. Never liked Krilov, to be honest.) who spent all summer flying around, not worrying about future only to be dying from freezing cold weather in winter. She crawled to the ant, who had spent all summer working hard building himself a warm place, and asked for shelter. The ant, miserable bastard, looked at her, gleefully, and pointed out that she should have not been partying all summer.  “So, why don’t you go do some dancing now, eh? “He said (asshole). 

OK, so this friend of mine… she is often blunt-it is a Soviet/Russian thing in all of us-but she does have a point, of course.

However! (My favourite word)

I do have a logical (to me, anyway) explanation for my dragonfly behaviour. I tend to do things that make me happy, now.  It is all about experiences. And sharing food and drink with friends is one of those pleasures in life that I really enjoy.

The reason I have been discussing and thinking about savings vs enjoying life at the moment is because I just had a fantastic experience. I was sitting at home one afternoon, texting my mother on Whats App, when she mentioned a nice Georgian restaurant she was planning to have her birthday dinner at, just her and my cousin with her daughter. As I imagined the three of them celebrating together I had this overwhelming urge to be there too. You wouldn’t even believe how little time it took between the second that thought slipped into my mind and me booking my ticket. I looked and Qatar Airways had some special deal on. I also remembered I had air miles. And there we were- the plan was formed, time off from work and tickets booked, and the fun began. 

I managed to keep my upcoming 4-day visit a total secret, even from the cousin in Baku. “Record her reaction!” all my friends said, but I wanted to be mindful about it, or simply speaking, focus on experiencing it, rather than messing about with the phone.

I really was enjoying my little surprise plan! I created a cover story of a Russian friend visiting Baku and bring a gift from me, so I kept the story going till the very end, texting my poor mother from the airport asking whether the friend had called yet??!!

 “No? How bloody rude! She promised to be there by 12!”

When I finally reached the apartment, I was giddy and impatient.

I rang the doorbell and hid from the view. Who is it? She asked and I used a fake silly voice to confuse her once again. 

The shock and delight on her face when she saw me! I should have recorded that.

There was some silly jumping up and down from me, while shouting I was there for the whole 4 days! as well as tears from my mother, still unable to believe I was suddenly standing there.

To me, life should be about moments like that. Being able to surprise someone you love. Being able to spend four days with your mother, especially when you live away from home, and busy with your own children. Being able to treat you favourite cousin, who doesn't have a job at the moment, to a few dinners and drinks out. 

Now, could I afford that trip, together with all the dining out- pretty much non-stop? Well, it depends on who and how looks at life and finances. To me, it was important and special and totally worth it. To someone else perhaps it would be an extravagant thing to do. But what makes you- and people you love happy today is just as important, if not more than some hypothetical happiness in the future you may never reach.

A good Canadian friend of ours likes to say that he feels he is rich enough if he can afford a round of beers. I maybe suck at saving money but I am happy that i can invite friends for dinner, and fly home for my mother's birthday. Because those are the moments that matter.