Sunday, April 22, 2007

Baku, Days 1 to 3

(Exchange Rate: US$ 1 = 0.864 Azeri new manats; AZN 1 = PHP 55.55)

Day 1

After two weeks in (relatively) sweltering Bishkek and Dushanbe, I was greeted by a temperature of 10 degrees Celsius in the middle of the afternoon. Good thing I brought my winter-in-SFO clothes.

There are two things that immediately struck me in Baku-- it's dusty/muddy and there are a lot of newly constructed buildings (and even more that are being constructed). The latter can be attributed to Azerbaijan's new oil wealth-- they found large deposits of natural gas in the late 1990's. Main roads in Baku are wide and smooth, but side streets are terrible. Unlike Bishkek and Dushanbe which retain their Soviet ambience, Baku feels more like Istanbul.

Almost everyone in Azerbaijan speaks Russian and English usage is starting to grow because of an influx of foreign investors. The main language, of course, is Azeri-- a Turkish dialect which has its own alphabet based on the Latin alphabet (lots of tails, umlauts, and an inverted "e", though). So far I know two Azeri words: salam (hello) and saol (thank you, good bye, and can be used as a toast).

Day 2

My colleague invited me to lunch at his home. His wife prepared a superb meal of fried mutton, grilled tomatoes and eggplants, and salad. This was washed down with home-made red mulberry juice. Of course there was the omnipresent bread. Those who know me probably expected this, but the highlight of the meal was the eggplant-- grilled with olive oil and thinly sliced garlic.

After a tour of the Azeri countryside, we had dinner at his home. Again, the meal was superb-- eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers stuffed with mutton, garlic, and spices. We also had fresh herbs (basil, parsley, spring onions) from their garden.

I saw family life in Dushanbe and Baku and I can sum it up in one word-- patriarchal. In Dushanbe, my hosts (husband and wife, both professors, and their son) ate with me as a family but only the wife prepared the meal and cleaned up. I tried to help, but I was stopped by both of them. In Baku, I had two meals at my colleague's home, but I didn't really share the meals with his family. It was just the two of us sharing the meal and his family (wife, daughter, and son) were serving us. I only got to meet his wife shortly before I left their home. Fathers here are really treated as kings and the family revolves around them.

Day 3

From my arrival in Baku until now I stayed at the Park Inn hotel (AZN 150/night). It was a very posh place with a great view of the Caspian Sea outside my window. But, alas, it was too expensive for me. My per diem can accommodate it, but it would mean I'll have no savings and I'll have to scrimp on food. So I gave up my hi-tech room with a great view for a sparse, viewless room (the view is a construction crane) at Hotel Empire. The good news: it also has free internet, is just two buildings away from ADB, and it's only USD 100/night (or AZN 86/night)-- almost half the price of Park Inn.

For dinner my colleague brought me to a restaurant with a nice pastoral view of a lake in the suburbs of Baku. Along with fresh vegetables, various shashlik (beef, mutton, and sturgeon), and olives, we had a dish called sacici (pronounced sa-ji-chi)-- a stew of chicken, potatoes, peppers, oranges, and tomatoes cooked in a base of butter. It tastes very much like the Filipino afritada sans the tomato sauce (a perfect meal if only we had rice). The dish is actually named after the dish it's cooked in-- the sac (pronounced saj). It's a cast-iron pan shaped like a shallow Spanish paelleri and any food cooked in it is called a sacici, literally "in the sac".

Tomorrow, Monday, the hard work starts.

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