The flight from the Ukraine to Azerbaijan was about half full. The first transit bus had disgorged its passengers and we had taken seat, expecting the doors to close at any minute. The overhead compartments were full, not of suitcases and bags, but of heavy winter coats and big fur hats. It was -12°Cin Kiev that afternoon.

I had one of the back rows all to myself and had my laptop out ready to boot up. Flights are no longer an opportunity to catch up on some much-needed sleep. Until I learn how to say ‘no’ and mean it, I will be forever looking for a few extra hours in a day.  The flight to Baku was earmarked to copy-edit a couple of a chapters from a book written by a gal from Belarus… a favour.

One more bus pulled up outside and about a dozen men in greatcoats and hats came aboard. I immediately pegged them as oil workers. It may well have been that flying into Kiev that morning from Budapest, I had been forcibly reminded of Alaska – of Valdez – and the oil industry and its accompaniments were on my mind. The white expanse of snow punctuated by wooden houses and bright flashes of colour as pick-ups navigated the icy roads. It was very similar to Valdez – without the water and the mountains and the trailer parks…

I had no doubt in my mind. The men were big and burly and dressed and pressed in street clothes that looked as if they’d been carefully closeted until now. Huge hands, broad shoulders, and loud voices – the sum of the parts was greater than the sum of the whole. They were oil workers and they looked as if they were heading home on leave. As they tried to fit their bags and coats into the already crammed overhead compartments, it became clear that they operated as a unit. One elderly, rather distinguished man, pointed to various compartments with a beautifully carved walking stick, instructing two of the men as to what could go where. Another was sent off to check with the cabin steward if they could use the empty back rows for their bags. A fourth was set to work repacking coats already stored.

They were carrying huge boxes that looked as if they contained 5-litre bottles of some unpronounceable liquor. So, maybe they were going on rather than coming off.  Yes, it made more sense that they were going back to work. The Azeri economy runs on oil and they were heading towards Baku. Happy that I’d figured it all out, I went to work.

We had no sooner taken off than most of the empty back rows had been claimed. The shortest of these giants stretched out and promptly fell asleep. Loud snores, grunts, and heavy breathing melded into one and took on an almost orchestral note that blended nicely with my percussionist keyboard tapping.

Later, as I entered the immigration all at Baku, I saw three signs: Foreign Passports, Azerbaijan citizens, Diplomatic Persons. I took my place at the back of a long, slow-moving queue, wishing, not for the first time, that I had a diplomatic passport. Then, as if from nowhere, my boys appeared en masse, and stood in the Diplomatic Persons line. I did a double take. Yes, all 12 of them, including la director with his wonderfully carved stick. Diplomats? Surely not! No way.  As a host of illusions shattered noiselessly around me, I wondered… mmmm, one doesn’t have to be a diplomatic person to be a diplomat!

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