Day 443: Bless My Lucky Underpants

19.03.10:

I called Alex (whom I met at the Irish Pub the other night) and asked him if he could get in touch with the Uzbek embassy to see if there was any chance they might be open after 4pm today. To my shock and surprise, they were – they were open until SIX. This is pretty unheard of where I’ve come from (which I guess is the rest of the world) – most embassies open for a couple of hours in the morning once a century when the moon is in the Eighth House of Were. THANK YOU ALEX!!

Struck with a new sense of urgency (I was firmly convinced that I would be going to the Uzbek embassy on Monday morning) and seeing that yesterday’s storm had passed and the skies were bluest of blue, I headed over to the Kazahk embassy to go and retrieve my passport. After negotiating the antequated metro system and helping the taxi driver find his way there through a traffic jam, I arrived at six minutes past four and by seven minutes past four I had my passport back. Entry: GRANTED!

Awesome, I thought, ran out to the main road and jumped the first taxi I could get my hands on to the Uzbek embassy. However, it was now pretty much rush-hour and the going was sloooooow. The Uzbek embassy was unhelpfully strategically placed on the other side of the city and it was about 4:40pm before I got there (my taxi driver got very lost in the back streets of suburbia). Never mind, drop in the passport, pick it up on Monday, Bob’s-your-uncle. Only when I met the incredibly friendly ambassador he informed me that I could – if I was fast – get the visa TODAY.

You see, I had already organised the invitation through Stantours, all I was doing was picking up the visa.

The possibilities whizzed through my mind. I think because everything has taken so long for so long that that’s just the way things are going to be for the rest of The Odyssey, but to that I say PISH! If I got my visa today, I could be out of here tomorrow. That’s if the boat to Kazakhstan leaves tomorrow, which it won’t, unless I’m luckier than Lucky Jim standing in a field of four-leaved clovers wearing his magic lucky underpants. The ‘ferry’ only leaves once every ten days and one in ten are terrible odds.

So… what do I have to do?

Well, said the friendly ambassador, you need to hurry to the city centre, pay in the $85 you owe into the National Bank of Azerbaijan and come back here with the receipt. This is standard procedure with many embassies I’ve come across. I looked at my watch. It was 4:45. It sounded like an impossible mission. Surely the bank would be closed by 5pm. Oh well, in for a penny….

I ran with my arms flailing wildly to the main road, jumped in the first taxi that came past (almost getting myself run over in the process) and we fought together through the gridlocked traffic of central Baku. My heart was in my mouth as we inched closer and closer to 5pm… we were still a few blocks away and this traffic was going NO-where. At 5pm I had resigned myself to my fate. I’d be picking up the visa on Monday morning. We arrived at the bank at 5.03pm and it was closed. I banged on the door, but nobody came to my aid. But there were still people inside… couldn’t they just…. I tried to get in through the office entrance but the security guard was having none of it. Then a bank employee came to my aid. She told me that the bank had been closed since 4pm.

Damnit.

Are you open tomorrow by any chance.

No, it’s the holidays. We’re not open again for ten days.

Oh right…. PARDON????????!!!

Yeah, ten days. It’s the holidays, you see, like your Christmas.

Does that mean…. oh bollocks.

What do I do? What do I do? I started to panic. The nice bank lady told me I could pay it into another bank, a commercial bank, if I hurry – they don’t close until 5.30pm. My eyes lit up and I pegged it across town to this other bank.

I got there at 5.27pm. Panting, sweating, on the verge of tears…. can I pay $85 dollars into this account please?

The lady smiled. Sure – have you got your passport?

Yeah I, (goes for inside pocket only to find it empty)

I –

I left it at the Uzbek Embassy.

I’m very sorry then sir, there’s nothing we can do.

At that moment, there was only one thing keeping me from total mental and physical collapse – my mobile phone and a snowball in hell. I rang the embassy and explained the situation. After some discussions the secretary came back on the line and said the words I so deperately wanted to hear – it’s okay. You can pay it here.

I jumped in the air and screamed WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!

Which made everybody in the bank jump. And then stare. I high-fived the bedazzled bank teller and ran out of the door, into the nearest taxi summoning US$100 out of the nearby cash machine on the way.

It was now 5.40pm. The Embassy closes at 6pm. One last hurdle… get out of town during rush hour on Azerbaijan’s equivilent of Christmas Eve.

You know, every time I get in a taxi, or a bus, or whatever my driver invariably believes himself to be the bastard child of Michael Schumacher and Eval Keneval. That is unless I’m in a real hurry and then they decide to drive like they’re driving Miss Daisy. It was coming up to 6pm and there was no way we were going to make it. I rang the embassy. It’s me again. Could you possibly stay open for just a few insy-winsy more minutes?

I held my breath.

Yes, we’ll wait for you.

Thank the maker. It was six minutes past this running joke when I arrived and after a tense moment were I was for the first time in The Odyssey on the verge of physically assaulting my &^%(^*$” cab driver (he demanded double for hurrying – the rotter!) I hurried to the guard outside the Uzbek embassy.

Sorry – we’re closed.

I know. My name is Graham Hughes, they’re expecting me.

A withering look. A quick phone conversation.

Okay, you can go in.

I entered the Embassy – by the way, this wasn’t your Sudanese concrete cellar or your Azerbaijan portacabin, this was the Ambassdor’s residence… and a ruddy nice pad it was. The Ambassador came down to meet me. He had already put the visa in my passport. I handed over the hundred dollar bill, he gave me the change and we shook on the deal. ACCESS: GRANTED.

My favourite Ambassador so far. Uzbekistan… YOU’RE ALLLLLLRIGHT!

I exited the Embassy into the glorious golden hour sunshine of success. In less than two hours I had got my grubby mitts on two visas from the ‘Stans… the hardest countries in the world to crack Da Visa Code. Central Asia, here I come. Now I just need a boat.

If past experience is anything to go by, I could be waiting some time. But the shock at getting my visas so quickly was making me believe that anything was possible. Maybe it is.

Fed up with all things taxi (ONE WORD, WORLD: METERS) I decided to walk to the port. It took two hours and took me through some of the best parts of the city – along the Avenue of Rememberence (in which we’re not just presented with the names but also the faces of the deceased, etched into marble – a common practice in this part of the world and one that I actually quite like) and down to the shores of the Caspian Sea.

Something I noticed on the way down – those stone buildings that I like so much… they’re brand new! Well, kind of… Okay, some of them are, some of them aren’t and some of them are somewhere inbetween. The ‘somewhere inbetween’ are buildings that were formally miserablist concrete monstrosities but have given a new lease of life by the entire edifice being clad in a new overcoat of cut stone – Ionic Columns, Blustrading, Keystones, you name it… it’s like they’ve taken St. John’s shopping centre and turned it into something akin to Buckingham Palace. No mean feat! Okay, there are some building for which it hasn’t worked and it makes you wish they hadn’t bothered – but there are plenty more for which it has.

Everytime I bang on about architecture I get people saying that it’s a money thing. It’s not. It’s a matter of aesthetics. I don’t see why new buildings ‘have’ to look rubbish, I never have. And here, at the edge of the world, I’ve found my proof. Put simply, at first glance I couldn’t tell which buildings were 100 years old and those that were brand spanking new. These were not some kind of tacky pastiche like you’d find adorning the walls of a modern shopping center or some dreadful aping of earlier designs shoddily rendered out of cement. And these new buildings are made with cut stone – the kind you want to touch – and a definate Azeri look to them, something that the soviet ‘dark ages’ buildings could never have: they just looked like the same clunky, uninspiring, brutal, concrete crap that you find all over the world from Milton Keynes to Mozambique, from Melbourne to Montevideo.

My heart is made of stone. And I don’t see that as a bad thing.

So, eventually, (after catching a glimpse of el presidente himself strolling through the cordoned-off-for-tomorrow’s-celebrations waterside park) I found myself at the port. I spoke to some guys and they pointed me to a portacabin just beyond the boomgate. I rang the bell and a guy in maritime garb opened the day.

No ferry today!

I already knew that much, but what about tomorrow?

No ferry tomorrow!

Okay, I’ve got the weekend to play with, that’s fine.

What about Sunday?

Maybe Sunday.

Can I call?

No, you come here tomorrow 1pm.

But it’s over the other side of town!

The guy laughs and shuts the door. That’s me told then. I ambled back to Nicks, grabbing a kebab on the way. Nick has been an utter legend allowing me to stay at his, especially considering he’s up to his eyes with getting stuff organised for his trip to Pakistan on Sunday. I’ve got to find somewhere else to lay my weary bones tomorrow night, but Alex and Lala are on the case. Finding myself home alone and with Jamil leaving for Russia tonight I ended up staying in and watching DVDs. I’d go out tomorrow night, Saturday night in Baku on a public holiday sounds like a blast.

What a day!

I made myself a cup of tea.

DID YOU KNOW? At one point, Baku supplied 50% of the world’s oil.

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