The Wheels on the Bus
One of the things you get used to around here is the act of traveling taking an excruciatingly long time. Maybe for an Azerbaijani, the normal way of things includes waiting a few extra hours, stopping randomly on your route at the whims of various passengers and the driver, or going painfully slow along the road are standard fare for a trip anywhere in the country. And it doesn’t matter if you’re looking for a five-minute marshrutka ride of an eight-hour bus ride across the country. There is a degree of uncertainty involved in traveling in Azerbaijan unparalleled with any experience I’ve had before. Moving around in Southeast Asia and China had it’s annoyances, certainly; yet, the concept of traveling in Azerbaijan has an entirely different purpose and mode. When you begin to understand how the travel system works here, and resign yourself to accepting certain Truths of travel, life becomes a lot easier.
One major aspect of traveling from city to city here is that the bus “system” serves not only to transport people, but also as a way of moving goods. There was a trip I made a few months ago from Mingəçevir to Lənkəran that included a half-hour stop to pick up 2500 kilos of sugar in Cəlilabad. 2500 Kilos! At any given stop, you could end up picking up anything from people to foodstuffs to live animals. It’s not uncommon to find a bag of live ducks underneath someone’s seat on a bus. Or maybe a goat. Azerbaijan hasn’t really developed effective ground shipping options, and the infrastructure isn’t very good for it, so this is probably the easiest option right now. I still haven’t figured out if there is a price system for it yet. The last piece I’ve got on that note is how you can fairly easily send things from city to city with a decent chance of it arriving safely. Back a few months, a friend sent a bag of tomatoes from one city to another an hour away. The driver took the bag of tomatoes and delivered them as safely as the rest of his passengers. And it saved a trip for my friend. It’s time to explore that delivery system a bit more.
Another thing that can be a little frustrating at times is the role of a marshrutka ride as a shopping trip. Along the way from İsmayıllı to Bakı last week, we stopped at road-side stands for pears and meat. One woman insisted we stop for fresh pears, which I’m sure were delicious. We hung out in the glorified van for 10 minutes as she haggled, via the driver who got out, for a kilo of pears. A little while later, we suddenly left the road and barreled towards a small building in the middle of nowhere. It happened to be a butcher shop. A freshly butchered sheep hung in the shop, and a woman in our van got out to supervise as she claimed half the meat on the carcass. Another 15 minutes of travel time added on. When you expect these delays, they’re easy to deal with; when they’re unexpected, and you’re trying to get somewhere at a certain time (another fatal error), these pit-stops become tyrannical.
The last thing to know is that it will always take a little longer than expected. This is a country the size of Maine. Maine’s not that big. We really should be able to get across the country in a matter of hours. Instead, a 250km trip from Bakı to Lənkəran takes five hours. We should be able to do that in half the time, given decent roads and decent drivers. Yet, it is not to be.
If you want to keep an American view of travel while in Azerbaijan, it’s going to drive you nuts. But a slight shift in perspective is helpful. Knowing that getting on a bus involves more than just moving people, you can square with the fact that transport here involves many more functions that do need to take place. The ducks in those bags do need to go somewhere, so why not on the next bus? And the road-side stands need somewhere to unload their goods, since they probably don’t have a good transport option. Setting up the stand works for the buyer and the seller. Lastly, most city-to-city marshrutkas don’t leave until they are full, so you could end up waiting a while, or not going at all. It stinks for the potential passengers, but why should the driver take a loss on a trip when he doesn’t have to?