I am awake when I wake up. My usual sleepy headedness is noticeably absent. I check my watch – 9 am. I’d slept in later than usual. And then I remember where I am. Baku. Azerbaijan. Three hours ahead of Budapest. I am still on schedule. I decide to get up but as I move, I feel the force of some invisible hand pushing me back onto the bed. And then I remember that I’m on my holidays. I don’t have to be anywhere until 3 pm later this afternoon when I am to visit the Diplomatic Academy. Anyway, the lovely Ms Meddaugh doesn’t have an Internet connection in her flat. And it’s raining. So what’s my hurry?
The drive in from the airport had reminded me a little of Bangalore and its chaotic driving. Battered Ladas complete with shiny new designer-brand SUVs for road space, in an amusing East meets West fight to the finish. They make Budapest’s rush-hour drivers look like pensioners on a Sunday drive. I counted three separate accidents and held my breath for minutes on end as the driver fast-forwarded through the mêlée. What struck me was the complete lack of any apparent order or system and yet, as in Bangalore, everyone seemed to know his place.
I lie still, listening to the noise outside. My room faces out onto a narrow, one-way street into which cars and trucks are released at traffic-light intervals. Somewhere down the road, they bide their time, waiting for the green light’s permission to move. And then, as if released from a starting box, they roar into Başir Safaroğlu Küg, pounding aggressively on their horns hoping the noise will somehow clear the road in front of them. I time the intervals of quiet, strangely reminded of labour contractions. I am soon lulled back to sleep by their regularity.
I awake a second time to loud voices having an argument. I remember that there’s a market on the corner and imagine a delivery truck blocking the traffic and everyone in the vicinity adding their two cents worth. The language is strange. I know that people speak Azeri, Russian or English with those over 30 more likely to speak Russian and a little Azeri while the younger ones are more likely to have Azeri and English but little Russian. Such are the generations divided. The chap who drove me in from the airport last night has seen more than 60 Azeri winters and yet he speaks only Russian. As the voices drift through my window, I think its Azeri. Not that I know enough to tell the difference – it just doesn’t sound like Russian. They eventually sort it out and the blessed quiet resumes.
I awake a third time to the sound of music – a strange type of music. The muezzin is issuing the adhān, the Islamic call to prayer. It is both pervasive and haunting. I finally get out of bed and venture out on to the balcony expecting to see a series of mosques dotting the skyline and crowds heading in their direction answering the call. I look up and down and can’t see anything that remotely resembles a church of any sort. The tannoyed music seems to be seeping from the walls. And then, in the distance, I catch a glint of gold. It’s dark and dreary outside, overcast. But to my right, way in the distance, I see what might just be a minaret. Baku beckons.