In the Company of Strangers

We’d been to the west, having explored Istanbul, the gateway to Central Asia, on our way into Azerbaijan.  We’d been south, taking a southbound train from Baku to the border of Iran, allowing us to access an astonishing country with equally astonishing people.  From where we live in Baku, tracks also stretched north and northwest deep into the Caucasus, to points beyond –  as called for in the original idea for a railroad to pull together and strengthen the outer limits of imperial tsarist Russia.  These rail lines, however, did not originate in Moscow, instead having their source in Baku.  Oil dictated the need as long ago as the 1870s, hauling product across the Trans-Caucasus to the Black Sea coast for further shipment.  This is still true today, although the trans-caucasian pipeline now pulls a vast amount of oil to Turkey and beyond.  Our need for transport, however, had little to do with oil.

“We could always try a week or two in Dagestan. It’s so close. We could be in Derbent in three hours.”  I was teasing her.

“You’re serious.”

“If you are.”

“I’m not!

“Good answer,” I replied, saving myself from an unsavoury look.  Dagestan might very well work out fine, but currently westerners are not appreciated by a few small and unpredictable groups.  Best to stash the idea for a better day.  Georgia, on the other hand, with its economy mired in post-soviet stagnation, overwhelmingly saw visitors as beneficial.  I looked hard at the cyrillic lettering on the tickets we’d just purchased.  I had no clue what they meant.

“Tbilisi?” I held up the ticket.  She looked at the illiterate one and nodded.  “I don’t know,” I went on,  “I didn’t like the look that babushka gave us at the ticket window.”

“What was wrong with her?  She gave us special seats.  She smiled at us and wished us a good trip, too.”

“I know.  That’s the problem.  This may be a post-soviet world but they were still trained  the soviet way.  I’m suspicious.”

“Ha!  I think she likes you.”   I pulled my hat brim lower over my brow as we walked out of the station.

“Nyet!”

Awaiting departure for Tblisi at the Baku Railway Terminal.  Copyright James V. Michalec 2014

Awaiting departure for Tblisi at the Baku Railway Terminal. Copyright James V. Michalec 2014

The train for Tbilisi leaves every night at 10:30.  In a clean soviet carriage painted in immensely drab colours inside and out, and in a typical compartment with four berths –  two bunk arrangements on each side – we sit opposite one another by the window and watch Baku slowly disappear into the night.  And slowly is the word.  No Azerbaijani train is fast and this one is no exception.  A derailment couldn’t possibly result in any personal injury on this rail system, I muse, as we settle in for the 13 hour ride.  Even a head-on collision with a freight train would only result in spilled pomegranate juice.

Ready to make tracks to Tbilisi.  Copyright James V. Michalec 2014

Ready to make tracks to Tbilisi. Copyright James V. Michalec 2014

At a station stop not far from Baku centre we picked up our new travel companions – buying out the remaining seats in a compartment is not allowed, try as we did.  We enjoy meeting new people, but on a sleeper you never know what you might get.  In this case, two healthy young fellows slip into our compartment.  Faisan and Rauf are cousins, headed to one of the final stops on the line in Azerbaijan to visit their relative in the army.  Faisan, the elder, speaks a good English.  His cousin does not, requiring the use of Russian or Azerbaijani to bring him, from time to time, into our lively conversation.  Visiting relatives in the army is a favourite Azerbaijani ritual, we have learned.  Apparently, life in the army is rather long and brutal even when there isn’t a war.  The food is terrible, we are consistently told, so relatives travel frequently on these visitation pilgrimages with plenty of fresh food.

“How do you like Azerbaijan?” Faisan asked.

“We love it.”

“What is best?”

“The people.  The Azerbaijanis are the friendliest people we have met.”

“Oh!  This is true?   Americans I have met are very friendly.  I think Americans are the most friendly.”

“Thank you.  Yes, there are many friendly Americans – but nothing like Azerbaijanis.  You share everything with strangers.  You are always so helpful.  I think we can learn some good things from you.”

The proof, once again, lay before us.  Our companions had already pulled out a huge hunk of homemade sheep cheese and bread.  The bread was in a massive pile on the little table, multiple sheaves of flat naan bread – whole wheat, our favourite.  Our almonds and figs were brought out to meet the gift and ante-up.  Oil money had benefitted some in this country, but most worked hard for the money.  Many jobs were menial, not guaranteed as they had been in soviet times.  Both these young men were construction workers, Faisan a carpenter, Rauf a truck driver who had been training to operate heavy machinery.  Employment had been uneven for them, the pay low.  To share, to give under such circumstances, meant a great deal and we did not miss this.  One must be careful in this part of the world.  People who are in no economic position to share what little they have, do so.  It would be easy to fall into the trap of taking advantage of them.  The car attendant, another babushka who could have been a stand-in for the one back at the Baku railway station, brought us tea.  Our conversation, and the Tbilisi-bound train, rolled on, gently, into the Caucasus night.  Somewhere along the line, not running out of conversation but doing the right thing, we eased into our berths.

The "Speed Demon" electric locomotive with our spiffy carriage orderly. Copyright James V. Michalec 2014.

The “Speed Demon” electric locomotive with our spiffy carriage orderly. Copyright James V. Michalec 2014.

In the early hours of the morning, not long after the sun has come up, the train pulled into Tovuz, Azerbaijan.  The carriage orderly, fast asleep, failed to wake up our Azerbaijani friends.  As the train glides softly to a stop, the subtle jerking wakes all of us.  Faisan’s quick look out the window is followed by rapid, super-charged  Azerbaijani and a flurry of clothing, jackets, and suitcases as the two men scramble to gather their belongings. “Goodbye!  Goodbye!” Down the corridor they stumble and careen, exiting the car as the train begins to move again.

“Wait!  The naan!”  I call.  But they are out, the train rolling, and in a second their image on the platform vanishes.  Here the heap of naan sits, on my seat in the corner, wrapped in a plastic bag.

“What do we do?”  We sat looking at one another.

“We keep it,” I finally say.  My wife smiles.

“And we share it with strangers, wherever we can,” she says.