On a Road Trip
I’ve found myself in Mingechevir, a city situated more towards the northwest of Azerbaijan. Now that I’m here, things are fairly normal. My marshrutka ride out, though, was something of a more dramatic nature than you really want in a four-hour trip through mountains and valleys. I should have been a bit more weary of my upcoming ride when I received this text message from Jeff a few hours before, himself at the time in a marshrutka headed to Baku:
Have you ever become convinced that your marshrutka driver contracts with the devil and that he’s driving you deeper and deeper into his private hell?
When I received that text message, I should have had a little better of an idea of what was coming.
To be sure, this really wasn’t that bad of a ride. It started out as I was wedged between a rather large man to my left and a teenaged boy to my left. Since my shoulders didn’t really fit between them, I had to lean forward a bit from our bench seat in the back of the vehicle. After that, the Azeri fear of cool or blowing air set in, as all the windows were quickly closed on the marshrutka. Amidst the 17 passengers, a sunny afternoon, and and occasional cigarette lit up by the driver, this was not ideal for air circulation. Stifling is a good way to put it. Remarkably, in these situations in which Azeri men are certainly wearing several layers of clothing, a suit jacket, a sweater, a t-shirt, and probably an undershirt, they manage to carry the whole ride without removing one item of clothing. That’s got to be hot. An hour or so later, someone finally opened a window. That was a godsend.
This is standard fare for almost any marshrutka ride, but then things got a little weird. First, after we had our break midway through in Shamaxi, we continued on through mountain passes at breakneck speeds, trying to pass everyone and everything in sight. This was particularly a problem when we came to a standstill amidst a flock of sheep and small herd of cows. It’s not good to run them over. This also meant that our driver would be pedal-to-the-metal for stretches, and then slam on the brakes when something came into the road. That’s just annoying. Slow down and drive a a normal speed, please.
This stop-and-go jerkiness, combined with the relatively poor state of the road, led to the strangest part. As our driver was darting faster and faster into places on the road he shouldn’t be going, and taking twisted mountain turns faster than he ought, the big guy to my left started having back problems. Every big bump warranted a big groan. That’s a lot of groans. At this point he looked at me and asked me to massage his back, to grab his upper back muscles near his spine and really give them a workout. I don’t care where you are: this is a somewhat bizarre request. But I acquiesced. It seemed to help. As soon as this happened, though, the entire van became concerned about this man and his back issues. Some sort of medicine was passed around, he was encouraged to stand up for short stretches, and one of the windows was closed. All the while, the driver continued to seek out potholes and rough stretches at breakneck speed. So, while Jeff’s text message seemed a bit overdone at the time, I left that marshrutka ride thinking that it’s not that far outside the realm of possibility.