From the balcony we could see the mass of demonstrators marching in the amber lights of Baku at nighttime. Shouts of ‘down with the enemy’ roiled in the air like a maelstrom. The crowd was mostly men, but occasionally a group of women could be seen too. Initially, I was annoyed – it was two in the morning and the chanting was keeping me awake – but after the sleep fell from my eyes, it dawned on me that I was in the middle of a potentially disastrous convergence of events – trapped in a powder keg during a pandemic.
Azerbaijan, a country of nine million, is blessed with a profundity of black gold, but little else. A strip of land at the base of the Upper Caucasus Mountain Range is fertile, but elsewhere, Azerbaijan is arid. In millennia past, Shemaki, a town along that verdant range was an outpost for travelers on the Silk Road, a great exporter of rugs and maker of some of the finest wines in the world, but those days were long gone and the world had lurched forward into newer and perhaps stranger times.
Today, Azerbaijan stands in a geography which sees its neighbors as Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Armenia, Russia and Georgia (Georgia being the only true democracy, but possessing little regional influence). Other than Russia, Azerbaijan is most influenced by Armenia. There is little good-will between them. Their views of the future diverge at every point and they hold different religious beliefs; Azerbaijan is culturally Islamic and Armenia is primarily Christian. But more than religion, their relationship has been defined by a slow-burning fire set half a century ago by the USSR – the effects of which myself and Valerie were looking down upon.
In 1923, mainly to woo Turkey towards communism, but also to keep the local focus on matters close to home and not on Moscow, a region of Armenia, known as Nagorno-Karabakh, was gifted to the former Ottoman state of Azerbaijan. The region essentially became an island of ethnically Armenian people, close to Armenia, but inside Azerbaijan. Now, Armenia claims the land as its own, wanting reunion with a place where a majority of people identify as Armenian. While opposite them, Azerbaijan’s claim to the region is recognized internationally. On either side, Nagorno-Karabakh represents not only added acreage, but also, in very certain terms, the potential to shore up their borders amid an unsteady neighborhood.
Leaned over the railing beside me was Valerie, the Swiss girl I’d taken to living with in Baku. She was as annoyed as I was – though for different reasons. I was annoyed for the petulant reason of having been woken, Valerie was annoyed because she’d been teaching in Azerbaijan for two years and had seen firsthand how indoctrinated Azeri students were in their hatred of the Armenians.
Azeri news, read by anyone with even basic levels of reading comprehension, comes off as a combination of Fox News and Soviet-era propaganda. Indignant anger is justified by hyperbolic reports of attacks by ‘The Enemy.’ Seeing the demonstrations below us was soberly predictable.
“Already they’re calling for war and who knows what even happened?” Valerie said. “It’s probably just a distraction cooked up by the government to take the focus off the lockdown.”
Our apartment overlooked the heart of Baku. Directly below us was Nizami Park, the promenade and, behind a government building, a Starbucks and a Hard Rock Cafe. For as many dirt roads as I had walked in the Azeri countryside, Baku was a modern metropolis. Government attempts to expand the city were happening so quickly that Baku was one of the few capitals in the world that has an excess of housing. For our spacious apartment with three balconies, dead in the heart of the city, we paid a meager $400.
The demonstrations went on through the night, but by morning the city was quiet as ever. We heard a few days later that an added three-thousand people had enlisted in the military. The truth of the conflict at their borders remained a mystery.
At the point of the demonstration we’d been in lockdown for a month. I had Savannah and Valerie had her Daschund-mix, Mamba, we were allowed out twice a day to take them to the bathroom (and we stretched those allowances as far as they would take us). The temperatures were scorching, reaching nearly one hundred, but electricity was wildly subsidized so we let the air-conditioning run almost indefinitely.
In our air-conditioned palace, it felt as though we were children in a fort of pillows and sheets. Outside the pandemic raged on and the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute flared, but inside we had our oasis. Valerie and I got on effortlessly. She was the smartest person I’d ever been with. She had a masters, played violin and spoke four languages. We quickly fell into a rhythm. In the morning I wrote while Valerie practiced Russian. In the afternoon we played ping-pong on the living room table. And at night, between sips of wine and hands of rummy, we gazed onto the empty streets of Baku – populated only by government-paid babushkas sweeping the streets with stick brooms. Before bed I’d read Lord of The Rings aloud and we were transported further still.
When Azerbaijan’s seven-thousand hospital beds filled up, total lockdown went into effect. The infection rate in the small country had been climbing for months yet Valerie and I hardly noticed – we were Westerners, blessed by birth into strong currencies which allowed us to insulate ourselves. While thousands fell out of work and went hungry, time moved on unnoticed for us.
Eventually, the temperatures dipped from their sweltering highs and the benefits of a two month lockdown could be seen by the new lows in infection rate. After that, the lockdown was loosened and we were free enough to go for long walks in the morning and evening. The only walks worth taking were those along the Caspian Sea and in Old City when the sun was low. We took those walks everyday, over and over, pretending time stood still and wasn’t marching towards our inevitable split.
During my years of walking, I’ve suppressed a strong nesting instinct more or less effectively. For long stretches I’ve basked in absolute solitude, but there were other months, like those during my peregrination across Spain and Morocco, when all I could think of were the exact dimensions of the home I’d build and the family I’d raise.
With Valerie, the itch to be in one place, to fall asleep in the same bed each night, was finally being scratched, and guiltlessly at that. Normally, when I stop, I immediately begin counting the days until I leave. You have to get moving, my inner voice reminds me like a woodpecker cracking away at my temple.
But in Baku there was none of that. Not only did I have to stay in one place, I couldn’t leave if I wanted to. Azerbaijan’s neighbors had shut their borders and the only flights out were consulate flights and the occasional chartered flight to Turkey (which wasn’t accepting dogs anyway).
It was only after months of living together, when Valerie got word that her last-ditch application to a school in Rome had been accepted, that I was found by a reluctant sadness. Valerie was to leave in three weeks. And soon I would too – inevitably returned to the road. Every week more flights were being offered by Turkish Airlines and soon there’d be enough that one of them would accept dogs.
Once a date was set for Valerie’s departure, the tentpole of our soft fortress tipped, the sheet fell and it was revealed that time had been moving around us all along.
I fought my feelings, but I grew reticent, as I tend to do when upset.
The three weeks passed quickly and tightly. Valerie left and a few weeks later I was on a flight out with Savannah.
The moment I landed in Istanbul, my summer with Valerie, in the backwaters of the world, seemed a dream. And again I learned a lesson I thought I had learned a hundred times before – that everything passes, especially for me – a leaf in the wind, foam on the tide, a dream of a dog at nighttime.
But learned something new in those captured months as well. I had always thought kindness alone was enough in a partner, but from Valerie I learned I needed someone smart and accomplished as well.
Only I wasn’t allowed such things yet. I was given the lessons but not the things they could be applied to. The contract I’d signed with myself years before to walk around the world was as such incomplete. There remained solitary years ahead; years filled with dust and grime and aching muscles. In the miles to come, my fortress wouldn’t be of pillows and sheets, but of nylon flapping in the wind.
In a diminutive and over-simplistic manner, I felt much like Azerbaijan – trapped by design, fighting for self-determination, and not quite at ease, at least not yet.