I'm on a Marsh
If I had to think of something that all Peace Corps volunteers share around the world, it is a scary transportation system. Just crossing the road in your host country is enough to make you buy up that Peace Corps life insurance ASAP. It isn’t limited to the villages either. Baku and Ganja, the two biggest cities in Azerbaijan, are actually probably the two worst places in Azerbaijan to cross the street. In two years here, I have seen more accidents than I can count. To my complete horror, I even once saw a little old lady get hit by a car while crossing one of the main streets in Ganja. She must have eaten her Wheaties that morning, because she was fine, but it was a scary moment.
I have even been hit here. When I first got out to site (a year and a half ago) I was walking through Goranboy one day with a young Azeri girl, and we were crossing a side street, parallel to the one main street in our town. A car was coming off the side street, and I was paying attention as to not get hit by it. I crossed in front, and a tuk-tuk (little motor scooter) came flying around the corner from the main street and swiped my kegs out from underneath me. I went flying up in the air and landed flat on my back. The Azeri girl screamed and all the men standing around and in the cafes came to pick me up and make sure I was okay. The only thing that hurt was my pride, and my knees a little. I brushed myself off and hurried away. Alas, in Azerbaijan it isn't that easy to escape your embarrassment. The Azeri girl still calls it my "catastrophe", and I got into a taxi a few months ago and the guy in the passenger seat asked the taxi driver who we were. He called Kate the "girl who runs everywhere" and me "that girl who got hit by a motorcycle". I really hope that's not how I am remembered here!
The many form s of transportation in Azerbaijan can overwhelm a person. At any normal Avtovagzal (bus station) one may find buses, mini-buses, taxis, van-taxis, motorcycles, tuk-tuks and the ever scary marshrutka (marsh). Ah, the marshrutka,. The simultaneous God-send and devil machine. It is bigger than a mini-van and smaller than a mini-bus. It seats about 16-18 people and will drive anywhere. They are 99% percent rust held together with industrial duct tape. I don’t know if they come with mufflers from the manufacturer, but by the time they hit Azerbaijan, the muffler is long gone. Only half of them still have the shock pads. So when you board one of these things, you are looking at a long, loud, bumpy ride. We Peace Corps volunteers get used to it though. When Jessica came to visit Azerbaijan, we got on a marsh to get from Georgia into Azerbaijan it was a 4 hour ride and we were both EXHAUSTED by this point. I told Jess she could sleep on the ride over.
The ride from Tbilisi to Zaqatala (Georgia to Azerbaijan) is a windy, bumpy one. As soon as we set out, my head hit the side window and I zonked. I woke up 3 hours later, looked back at Jessica and said “Did you have a nice nap?” She looked at me like I was a crazy person. She hadn’t slept a wink. She said that no normal person can sleep on a ride like that. I chuckled to myself and realized my amazing adaptation. I wonder now if adaptation is why my father can sleep anywhere at any time. His sleeping abilities are incredible and well renown in the King family, and I suppose now that it is because of his many years in the Army and Army Reserve finding decent places to sleep on the road.
There are many dangers to choosing a marsh as your method of transportation. Marshrutkas that are going short distances turn into clown cars. I have stood for as long as an hour to get places. As a person who lives on a main route between Ganja and Baku, the cars are often full when they get to my stop, so I have to push everyone like a left tackle to even get on. The 16-18 passenger vehicle turns into a 25 passenger death trap. People are standing in the aisles, the doorways and between the seats. Not only that, but when you get the privilege to sit next to a old xanim, 9 out of 10 times the xanim takes up her seat AND half of yours. In the winter, this is fine for warmth, those women are like heaters! But in the summer, for me personally, all I want to do is push the xanim out the window, if she could fit.
When someone needs to get off the marsh, everyone must get off to let him/her out of the car. The worst and best part about it is that people haven the marsh stop whenever they want. This is terrible because many times it takes twice as long to get to your destination. People will ask for a stop in the middle of nowhere, nothing around but cows and fields as far as the eye can see. I have thought about it a lot, and I still have no clue where these people are going. They walk off into nowhere like Shoeless Joe Jackson in “Field of Dreams”. This is why the long rides vary greatly. My ride to Baku can take from 4.5-6 hours, depending on how often it stops for people. On the other hand, I have stopped the marsh for my own purposes countless times, and have stopped it to get on in some remote places. I have used it to my favor. I work the system so that when I am worked over by this same system, I don’t get as frustrated.
Another peril on the marsh is letting anyone know you are different at all. I am a complete failure in this category just from appearances alone. I get stares up and down the aisle and there’s no way to avoid them. Some of my fellow colleagues are a little better at blending in than me, and they will pretend they are Azeri so they will not have to spend 6 hours on a bus telling people who they are. I am all for describing my experience here, what I am doing, why I came and where I come from. This is actually one of the goals of the Peace Corps and I like doing this in a controlled setting. But to be with a stranger for 6 hours straight who will not let you sleep because you are different is a bit much. It’s like that guy on the airplane who takes up the arm rests and talks to you incessantly. There’s a point where my politeness hits its limits. I have actually woken up on a marsh to find a cell phone in my face and a guy taking a picture of me, sleeping. CREEPY.
Overall, the travel in Azerbaijan is risky but worth it. I appreciate the public transport here. It brings me all over the country and to my fellow volunteers. Marshtrukas are dirt cheap, run quite often, and go all over the country. I may bet my life every time I get on one, but I believe I am playing with pretty great odds. In America, we have perils to our public transport as well, with way fewer interesting stories to come home with at the end of the day.
Picture 1: The perils of crossing the streets in Goranboy.
Picture 2: We are stopped by sheep just as often as people.
Picture 3: Somewhere this kind of photo is out there on an Azeri's phone.