My departure from Azerbaijan was less than graceful. Rather than the bittersweet goodbye that I expected, Azerbaijan decided it would be more fun to make our final moments together a giant shit show. Let me back up.
Mercedes and I were incredibly excited to start our travels. We’d been calling each other every few days for the past month or so, partly to once again go over what we were packing but mostly just so we could squeal at each other about how AWESOME this journey was going to be and how COOL it was going to make us. We didn’t want to waste any time getting started, so we decided we’d take a night bus to Tbilisi, something we hadn’t been allowed to do before due to the “no travel after dark” rule, as soon as we were allowed to leave. No hanging around Baku for a few extra days for us. In the weeks leading up to our departure, my anticipation was growing rapidly, even through the seemingly hundreds of teary goodbyes. Anticipation and excitement aside, leaving Shirvan was difficult. At best, I was a little emotional. At worst (and probably more accurately), I was a complete wreck. I sobbed as my sitemate and I hit the road to Baku for the last time, much to the confusion and dismay of our taxi driver.
My last few days in Baku were filled with paperwork, more goodbyes, the tying of loose ends and the final paring down of belongings to what would fit in my pack. Finally, it was time to leave. I had managed to fit everything into my pack but a big ziplock baggie of the medicines from my Peace Corps issued medical kit and some peanut butter breakfast bars my expat friend had made for us. (As a side note, peanut butter is difficult to obtain in Azerbaijan and even the smallest jar will set you back $6-7. A gift of peanut butter is not to be taken lightly.) We crashed onto our bus in a fit of giggles, nearly hysterical in our realization that the long-awaited journey was starting. NOW.
As visions of peanut butter breakfast bars danced in my head with the many imaginings of what was to come, we finally settled down and drifted off to sleep. We were awoken by the bus driver when we reached the Georgian border. Now, I had crossed this border twice before, and with the exception of the straight-faced and angry soviet looking Azerbaijani passport officers, it wasn’t an entirely unpleasant experience. And sadly, what was about to occur wasn’t even close to the most unpleasant border crossing into or out of Azerbaijan, but that’s a story for another day. In the past, I’d disembarked, walked through each border and the bandit ridden no man’s land in between, and then hopped back onto my bus for the short ride into Tbilisi. Naturally, I assumed that is what would happen this time, too. Somehow in the confusion of false assumptions and early morning crankiness, Mercedes left her brand new travel pillow on the bus and I left my bag of medicines and the majestic peanut butter breakfast bars, thinking that in 20 minutes we would be back on our bus and munching on a delicious breakfast on our way to Georgian adventures. (Spoiler alert: The above picture is the first and last we have of the infamous travel pillow, may it rest in peace.)
We started to realize that something was different from anything either of us had heretofore experienced at a border as we tossed our packs onto our backs and approached the angrily bland border crossing station. Apparently, everyone else and their mother had also wanted to leave Azerbaijan at the crack of dawn on that day. In reality, there were probably 100 people crammed into this small room. But since we often remember an exaggerated version of our actual experiences, I’m going to go ahead and say there were 2,347 people all waiting to go through the 2 open lanes. And because making an actual LINE would be unheard of and preposterous, everyone had instead situated themselves into a giant clusterfuck, replete with pointy black shoes and babushkas galore, their scarves and wool socks the only spots of color in a sea of black.
We took a minute to scan the situation in front of us, realized we may be there longer than 20 minutes, and settled in for the long wait. As we slowly inched forward, somehow more and more people managed to pour into the already crowded room, leaving us crushed and trampled. Everyone seemed to be in a giant hurry, and rather than approaching the border in an orderly fashion that would allow everyone to get through quickly, the young men instead resorted to pushing each other (and us) and throwin ‘bows. I’m NOT exaggerating, friends, when I say that we were being trampled. Somehow, the old women were immune to this, marching directly to the front of the line as if they owned the place, and no one questioned it. Oh, the power. Anyway. Somewhere between hour 1 and 72 of waiting (I lost track), we had somehow managed to inch our way almost to the front of the masses. If you’ve ever experienced a mosh pit at a concert, that’s kind of what it felt like at the front of the line. No one actually enjoys it, but somehow everyone allows it to keep happening. Why is beyond me. Finally, we had been pushed to our limits. I was sick of being pushed. I was sick of being harassed. I was sick of hearing the things the group of young Azeri men next to us were saying about us, not knowing we could understand them. At that point, I completely lost it. Luckily, this was one of those times when I suddenly become startlingly fluent in Azeri in my frustration rather than losing any and all ability to communicate whatsoever. To be able to finally pass through the gate and leave Azerbaijan, I ended up having to shame that group of young men beside us. Imagine their shock when they realized we spoke Azeri. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something along the lines of, “Look at how you are showing your country to foreigners. Shame on you! People will think that Azerbaijanis are inconsiderate and rude. Is that what you want the world to think of Azerbaijan?”
Surprisingly, it worked. We got through. My last impression of Azerbaijan was the angry-looking, post soviet faces looking up at me as they stamped my passport. Whoopee. As the smiling, friendly border guards on the Georgian side stamped our passports and welcomed us to Georgia, we felt relieved to be done with the ordeal and went outside only to find that our bus had left without us. This wouldn’t have been an issue, since the driver of another bus had been told to take us in to Tbilisi, except that we left those few things on our bus. I panicked a little. My anti-malaria pills for India had been in that bag, which is what I outwardly said I was most concerned about. In actuality, I was incredibly upset that the peanut butter bars were gone. Peanut butter bars. PEANUT. BUTTER. BARS. (I know that all you PCVs out there will totally get this.) All through the ordeal of crossing the border, I had told myself, “Well, at least there’s peanut butter at the other end of this…”
At this point in my life, having finished the months of travel, I’ve had enough real life lessons in non-attachment to probably not care if my peanut butter bars were lost. (Though it’s hard to say, because…peanut butter.) But at the start of this journey, it was oddly devastating. We managed to find a couple of Azeri guys on our bus who spoke Georgian, explain the situation to them, and thought we had worked out a plan that we would wait at the bus station in Tbilisi and the driver would pass off our stuff from the other bus to someone else who would then bring it to us. Sounds complicated. Wasn’t, really.
We ended up in a little city bus stop near the main station, where we had been told to meet the driver, and plopped down on a bench to wait for our delivery. Thirty minutes passed. Then forty-five. Then ninety. I have to say, if there’s anything that PCVs learn to do really well, it’s to wait patiently. After 3 hours of waiting, we finally got in touch with the guy that was supposed to be helping us. He said he’d investigate and see if he could figure out what had happened and shortly afterwards, he called us back to tell us the driver had gone to the bus station and didn’t see us. I told him we’d been sitting right where he told us to wait the entire time and were pretty hard to miss. Not a lot of American girls sitting in Georgian bus stations with giant packs next to them. The story then changed and he told us the driver saw all the medicines in the bag, was frightened of them, and threw everything away. “I guess it’s not your lucky day,” he said. No, sir. No, it was not. I’m skeptical that our things were thrown away, unless thrown away meant ‘taken home.’ I was near tears, hoping that at least whoever ended up with the peanut butter bars would appreciate how wonderful they were and rueing that I hadn’t eaten one before our departure.
Dejected and exhausted, we left the bus station and finally made our way to our hostel. Our journey had started off with a frustrating situation, but after settling in at our hostel we were finally able to get out and enjoy a little of Tbilisi. As we sat with our feast of badimjani, lobiani and khinkali and a very large carafe of Georgian wine in front of us, life seemed a little sweeter, and we once again felt optimistic about the adventures that awaited us.
The misadventures of the morning were over. The reality of now being RPCVs (returned Peace Corps volunteers) and a huge sense of accomplishment set in. We had made it out of Azerbaijan alive, and we were finally starting on a grand adventure that would offer fits of giggles, frustrated tears, awe inspiring sights, incredibly rich experiences and a heaping dose of unintended self enlightenment and growth.
The journey had begun.