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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

My Azeri Hero

Driving in Baku is an irregular proposition.  Most of the major roads are fairly well-paved, and the city is continuing to repave roads that hadn't seen new asphalt in several decades.  I spent the first six months playing pothole slalom on the road in front of our neighborhood, but now it's nice and smooth and even has these painted lines on it that drivers occasional interpret to mean lane markers.  But the cross-streets on either side of our block are every bit as horrendous as they were when we came and don't show any sign of getting fresh asphalt any time soon - definitely not before we leave.  When I'm driving on these roads I pretend that I'm practicing for our next post.

Occasionally new obstacles will pop up in these ignored backstreets, usually in the form of potholes or ditches or open manholes.  Despite being crazy drivers, Azeris, when out of their cars and not being forced to form lines, are very considerate of other people.  I don't know how many times I've had a stranger on the street back me up as I try to squeeze into a tight parallel parking spot.  They'll often help too when I'm trying to see how the width of my car lines up with the width of a hole between two other cars in traffic.  This drives Brandon crazy, but I find it really quite kind.  If you have seen my car you would know that I need all of the help possible because I am a horrible judge of its width.  Just ask the metal fence, water pipe, bus, gas main (they don't bury them here), and light post that I've run into over the last few years.

The locals' consideration also extends to warning drivers about new features in the road, so often you'll see sticks, bricks, and occasionally clothing on sticks marking holes and trenches that might be a problem for drivers going too fast for their own good.  It's not exactly orange cones and it's a far cry from road repair, but it works better than nothing.

So last week when I saw a brick in front of a dip in the side road near our neighborhood and watched the car in front of me swerve to avoid it, I swerved too, despite my impulse to just drive over the brick and show everyone I'm not afraid of some little dip.  As we sailed around the brick, I looked down to see the biggest hole I've ever seen in a road, probably ever.  It looked like there had been some sort of concrete-lined box under the road (part of the sewer system?) that had then caved in.  The edges of the hole hung over empty space and the bottom was over two feet deep - deep enough to cause a lot of trouble for any car who didn't heed the concrete brick.  Thank heaven I had decided to swerve.

I didn't think much about the hole until I came upon it again after grocery shopping this week.  As I barreled toward it, a girl on the street motioned that I should probably swerve and this time I knew that she wasn't kidding.  Last time there was plenty of room to swerve but this time there were cars parked on both sides of the hole.  That is something Azeris are not considerate about - blocking anyone and everyone in the quest of finding somewhere to park their cars.

First I went right.  About halfway through the creep to avoid certain disaster on one side and certain car damage on the other, I gave up and decided to back out and try the other side.  By this time two other cars were behind me, waiting to try their luck with the hole and so they got to back up too.  Azeris are good at backing up because they have to do it all the time.  Then I tried the left side.  It turns out that this side was even tighter than the right, and I decided that a few scrapes would be better than breaking a car axle by falling into that hole so I crept about as close as I could and was literally two inches from whatever idiot had decided parking their car next to a big hole would be a good idea.

As I said before, I'm a terrible judge of space in traffic.  I drive a big car and I'm a little person so I don't sit very high and can't see what is going on.  I started sweating and talking out loud.  I was about halfway around the hole and I didn't like the idea of backing up again.  But could I go forward?  I couldn't tell.  What should I do?  Part of me just wanted to park the car, unbuckle the children, and leave the car where it was.  Hopefully when I made Brandon go back and get it the blasted car would be gone.

But I couldn't do that.  What if the other car couldn't get out because I was blocking it?  When I was done reflecting and reminding myself to breathe, I looked up to see an Azeri man standing in front of my car talking on his cell phone.  He couldn't help but see the panicked look in my eyes, only standing about three feet away so he did what any person on the street does when a car is obviously in a tight situation - he started directing me.  Turn left.  Go forward.  Turn to the right.  A little more forward.  Then his eyes widened.  Stop.  Stop!!

I stopped.  He walked over to the passenger window and motioned for me to roll it down.  He couldn't reach the driver's side as it was about to kiss the Lada that had gotten me into this problem in the first place.  Did I speak Russian?  I shook my head no.  English?  Yes.  I nodded my head enthusiastically.  Yes.  He looked down at the hole, at the car, and then at me.  Why don't you let me drive your car?

I practically kicked the passenger door open after slithering across the car and shot from the car.  He hung up from the conversation he had been having - just hold on a minute, I've got to help this crazy white lady who can't drive and is about do wreck her car in a big hole, I'll call you back.  He got in, slithering back over the seats to the driver's side.

Now, if I had been in America, I would have paused a few moments before handing my car with my four children over to a complete stranger.  We've all heard stories of carjackings and nobody wants to be the stupid person who just hands their car over.  I would have thought again about just leaving the car parked.  Maybe I would have called Brandon for advice.  But here, in Baku, I didn't even hesitate.  I handed my car right over.  Maybe I was so stressed by my situation that I wasn't thinking clearly.  Maybe I'm so used to being a person that can't be messed with that I just assumed nobody would try anything.  But most of all, I just knew this random stranger wasn't trying to cause me problems.  He was just trying to help.  Because that's what men do here - they help women in trouble.  So I handed the car right over.

When I got out and saw exactly how close the car was to driving into a big hole, I almost passed out.  The font tires had cleared the hole, but the back was hanging on the edge, getting ready to plunge in and cause major problems.  Was my car insurance current?  I really wish I had a camera on my phone.

I almost passed out again as I watched my stranger-rescuer oh so very carefully back the car around the hole, performing magic right before my eyes, adjusting the wheels just a little this way and just a little that to keep the tires right on the edge of the hole.  I made a lame attempt at directing, but he wisely got some advice instead from a truck driver navigating the other side of the hole.  Then the car was free.

Evidently not trusting my ability to navigate the other side (smart man) he crept carefully around the marginally wider right side and got so close to the edge that the back tire bumped down on a loose piece of asphalt clinging to the side with the aid of some twisted re-bar.  As he drove down to the end of the road brief thoughts of carjacking flashed through my head, but my car stopped at the corner and he hopped about, already dialing his friend back on the phone.  As I almost cried with gratitude, thanking him repeatedly, he just nodded his head and walked down the road.  Another day, another white lady saved.  That's how things roll here in Baku.


Bridget said...

Such a great story!

PaulaJean said...

I would have done the same thing in your place. Whew!

Tracy said...

What a great story! You are amazing! I would have totally done the same thing and almost sure I have done the same thing except mine was trying to parallel park in downtown Raleigh!

Rudy Swanson said...

Oh no! This totally reminds me to obey the hazard signs that I see on the road. I've met so many drivers who don't mind the road repairs until they met an accident 'cause of it. Well, you're lucky to have great hearts to help you during this situation. I just hope the repairs will be done as quickly as possible. And that there'll be someone in-charge to place a better warning sign. You know, not just a small brick or a piece of cloth in a stick. :)

Rudy Swanson @