Part 2: So, here we stand, The Hawk and I, thumbs in the air, large backpacks at our side, and a group of Azeri men and women staring at us from across the road. Another mashtruka with a sign for Sheki pulls up. It's packed full, but three or four men manage to pile into it. It takes two men shoving the door from the outside to close it. I breathe a little sigh of relief. I have
little no experience with hitchhiking, but I assumed it would take awhile. At 12:04, the second car that passed us screeched to a halt. The Hawk ran up with his list of town names. After a brief back and forth we found out they were heading to Ishmalia, a town two towns before Sheki. Equipped with our one word of Azeri "Otovagzal" (bus station), we decided to go for it. We also convinced the lady who had been sitting next to us in the van to get in the car with us . . . I still wonder if she regrets that moment.
We threw our bags in the trunk and got into the backseat of the car (a really nice Acura Sedan, we were fully prepared for a beater). In the front sat two men that didn't speak a WORD of English, they didn't even know the word "Hello." But as Joey and I have traveled the world, we've realized that communication is not limited by common language. The driver (Rahim) was from Afghanistan, but he hasn't been back in years. He didn't speak any Dari and the word of the day became “Khube” or “Good.” His passenger (Khalid) was Iranian, but he only spoke Azeri. And Khatera, our friend in the back, lived in Sheki and was in Baku on business (we later figured out that she was trying to get her passport so she could visit her children who live in Moscow). The two guys seemed to be having a great time speeding along the highway, smoking pack after pack of cigarettes, and listening to loud Turkish and Iranian music that they sung with incredible passion. They pulled out a CD that said "English" on it. There were two songs on the CD, "This Is Why I'm Hot" by Mims and "Go Girl" by Pitbull. After the rest of the trip on repeat, we know these songs very, very well. Side note: We've been continually surprised at how popular Pitbull and Lil Jon are all over the world. Maybe it's because all Lil Jon says in his songs is "Yeah" and "Ok." Also, Joey would argue that we're not surprised, of course they are popular around the world, because they're awesome.
After about one hour of driving we pulled over at a small chaikhana (tea house). Khalid and Rahim motioned us over to a cage at the side of the road that had a live bear in it. We later watched some kids through a liter of Mirinda in the cage that the bear drank. After our tea stop, we pulled over again a natural spring. This is when we realized that we weren't just being driven from Point A to Point B; we were hospitality hostages.
When we arrived in Ishmalyia, we met up with a large Azeri guy driving a Lexus SUV. We ate a three-hour lunch at an incredible garden restaurant. The Azeri, Tafiq, asked Joey a question that needs no translation, "Vodka?" In the back of my head, I vaguely remember my 20th Century Russia professor saying some sort of warning about drinking Vodka with Russians. I think I can safely say that the warning applies to all Russians and former Soviet countries. Khalid and Rahim weren't drinking because they're Muslim, I don’t do Vodka (bad memories), Khatera seemed pretty against it too. So, The Hawk and Tafiq proceeded to toss back shot after shot of toasts as Tafiq motioned out different toasts and we guessed their meaning, "Women?" "WOMEN!!!" "Azerbaijan?" "AZERBAIJAN!!!" "Family?" "FAMILY!!!" . . . you get the point. Luckily Khalid stepped in before they ran out of things to toast and used the last half of the bottle to wash his hands. We also figured out sometime that this was a real estate deal. This was confirmed when our next stop was viewing the land in question.
And then they dropped us off at the bus station and we proceeding on to Sheki, right? Nope. Our next stop was Tafiq's house where we met his wife and kids, drank more tea, and looked at some amazing pictures full of non-smiling wedding parties and Russian officials. We listened to Tafiq's daughter count to 10 in English and watched his son do karate.
As we sped a long the road from Tafiq’s, we realized that we were not heading back to Ishmalyia. At this point we were resigned to our fate as hostages, maybe a little bit of Stockholm Syndrome had set in. We smiled and nodded as they continued to make stops. We just sat back and sang along to the two songs playing over and over and over. And two hours later we rolled into Sheki. Khatera motioned for them to pull over, gave us hugs and kisses, and was gone (and relieved). When we tell this story, people always ask about her about midway through and are shocked to find out that she stayed along the entire way.
But our story doesn't end here. After Khatera was dropped off, Khalid and Rahim drove us around to the sites of Sheki, all of which were closed as it was now 8:00 PM. They banged on the door at an old palace and convinced the guard to let us have a quick look. When they finally took us to our hotel, we had our first conversation with an English translator. They wanted to view our room to make sure it was suitable. They refused any form of payment. They wouldn't let us buy them dinner. They said that they were going to head back to Baku. And they said that they might come back to visit in 3 or 4 hours (or 1:00 AM). We said our goodbyes and that was it. After they left, all we could do was stare at each other with mouths agape asking each other over and over, "Did that really just happen?"
And this is what travel is all about. Unplanned detours, head aching borders, perfect cafes in towns most people have never heard of (I had the BEST cappuccino of my life in Sheki), and friendly hostage situations. Sure, we didn’t get to explore Sheki. Sure, the trip took twice as long as it should have. But the experience of spending time in the company of real Azeri’s, not tour guides, not taxi drivers, but real Azeri’s who were proud and honored to show us the places and people they love definitely goes down in my top life experiences. I think next time we take a mini bus, we’ll do a once over to make sure there’s a chance it might kick the bucket 30 miles outside of town.