“Is Azerbaijan a dry country?”
Normally I’d know these things – but not this time. I was determined to let Azerbaijan hold onto a few of its mysteries until I was inside the country.
No sooner had the question left my lips than Matt, an Azeri rap artist who we’d met a few minutes earlier on the train platform at Tbilisi’s central station, entered our second-class compartment with a special delivery: A plate of peanuts and two Coronas.
I guess Azerbaijan isn’t a dry country, then. Or maybe it was a subtle hint that we should try and squeeze in a few more drinks before the overnight train crossed from Kakheti, Georgian wine country, into Azerbaijan, where 99 percent of the population are Muslim. Safe to say I didn’t think I’d be sipping on a warm Corona while Azeri immigration searched our luggage.
I don’t know anyone from Azerbaijan. I don’t think I even know anyone who has visited the country as a tourist. To the best of my knowledge, Matt is the first Azeri person to ever speak to me. We were out on the station platform – him, me, Ross, and an extended Azeri family carrying a lot of plastic bags – getting ready to board the train. Wind whipping through the station, I was cold and growing impatient, and the little Georgian boy who I mistakenly let see our tickets and guide us to carriage number four was now pestering us with his incessant song, ‘money money, Lari Lari’.
The train was sitting there at the platform, warm and quiet. I tried to board, a little premature as the doors were still locked. Matt yelled something at me in Russian. I gave him a stupid smile and a vague hand gesture by way of reply, thereby identifying myself as belonging to that special breed of linguistically privileged English speakers who have never really found occasion to stretch our vocal chords much beyond the familiar. Matt knew it; he gave me a huge smile back. Pretty soon he was talking to us in his perfect English, offering his services as an interpreter should we have any trouble with the staff on the train that night.
He had just finished a six-month stint in the US and was on his way back home to Baku. He invited us into his carriage to drink with him and his two friends, one of whom wasn’t partaking for religious reasons but who for some reason was responsible for opening everyone’s Coronas. Speakers blaring Turkish-sounding music that made the stout stewardess shake her hips as she blustered up and down the carriage aisle. When we weren’t in their compartment, Matt was sticking his head into ours to make sure we were ok and check if we needed anything.
That was Monday night. Twelve hours later, I found myself in restaurant kitchen flipping cheese bread and posing for photos with the chef. Everything about Azerbaijan is completely foreign to me except the people, who have so far been overwhelmingly kind to us.
The more I travel, the more I realise it’s the people that make a place, and it’s those first few encounters that really shape your experience.
Azerbaijan is off to a great start.