Right after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Republic of Azerbaijan began to do business with companies abroad. Eventually I found myself visiting the capital, Baku, with a group of friends.
We stayed at the Intourist, the best hotel in the city at that time. The hotel also housed the American consulate. The US government was working with a shoe string budget, and the US consul complained all the time because he couldn´t use a phone which wasn´t recorded by the KGB. That guy was so cheeky he used to visit our suite to use our satellite phone, and had us leave the room so he could “talk to Washington.” I believe he was calling his wife to say he would return some day and please don´t forget to change the oil in the car.
We were visiting Baku to talk to newly minted Azerbaijani national oil company officials and make them wonderful offers so we could take their oil. But these guys were really busy trying to get a handle on things after they kicked out the Soviets (ie Russians), so we had plenty of free time. I read a lot, and I went sightseeing with the boys, including visits to the beach and other popular sites such as the monument to Beria and the Caravanserai.
The food in the hotel was terrible. Every day we ate chicken and rice: greenish chicken chips on a plate with white rice and bugs. It was always the same. I was so bored with the Azerbaijani chicken I would have eaten haggis. The others, who didn’t have the stomach training I had, suffered a lot.
One day, one of the boys enthusiastically informed us he had found a Chinese place. As you can imagine, we were very happy when he heard his proposal to go to the place that night.
After such a long time chewing on green chicken that Chinese restaurant sounded like heaven. That night we went in two taxis, all dressed up with suit and tie to eat Chinese.
The restaurant was quite far from the Intourist hotel. I remember it was in the new part of the city, which was characterized by its beautiful Soviet prefabricated construction. Block after block of very symmetrical buildings, all the same, all covered with very artistic graffiti.
When we arrived, we were amazed. The restaurant had Chinese architectural ceiling tiles, exterior columns painted red, and a spectacular gate. Because it was so far from the hotel, we arranged with the taxi drivers to pick us up later, and walked inside.
We sat at one of those big round tables with the spinning gizmo in the center, and asked for the menu. Behold that menu! It had about 30 pages, with a huge list of food, all labeled with numbers. We settled to choose our individual plates, and then call the waiter to order.
The first asked:
“I want the number 32, the duck with prunes”
And the waiter replied, “Sorry, we are out.”
Then our number two said:
“Fine, I´´ll have Number 16, please, pork with walnuts”
The third one of us, his voice trembling, suggested 74 …
Waiter: “No sir”
Then it was my turn, and knowing what things were like in communist countries (or countries just emerging from communism) I asked:
“Mate, what do you have?”
And the waiter replied: “Chicken with rice”.
Horrified, my colleagues insisted on pointing at the menu pages and babbled the numbers they wanted. For my part, I knew we had no choice. So I convinced them not to leave because we had to eat something, and reminded them the taxis were not going to come back for a while. So we all asked for the damn chicken with rice.
The boys began to drink beer to calm down, dinner came after they had drunk a few bottles and they ate everything with gusto. Drinking had drowned their sorrows, they were happy and no longer cared if their plates had worms and were covered with green mucus sauce. It was a happy dinner which got better as they consumed alcohol as if they were Europeans just escaped from Saudi Arabia.
Then dinner was over. It was time we left, we thought the taxis would come soon, so we went out and stood around waiting . And waited. And waited.
After half an hour waiting for the taxis to show up, we realized they probably weren´t coming, so we walked back and asked the waiter, who had remained near the door, if he could call us a taxi. Unfortunately his phone didn´t work, but he advised us we could walk ten blocks to a corner where they had a bus stop, and that bus line would take us near the Intourist hotel.
So we set off and we started looking for the bus stop. We walked a lot, so much we thought we were lost. The problem was that all the buildings were the same, all had broken windows, all the streets were covered with a little trash, and even the potholes in the street looked the same.
To make matters worse, my friends had drunk an enormous amount of beer, and began to complain that they had to urinate in a hurry . Soon thereafter they began to walk with their legs held tight together. This just wasn´t going to work. Our translator, a very practical man, suggested they urinate against the wall right there.
This led them to organize a debate (some were lawyers, and a lawyer would never be found urinating in public without having a debate over the legal merits thereof, whereby incarceration was an option, and have a judgment issued before he could urinate successfully).
Evidently the most pragmatic side won that debate, they stood against the wall in a row, and began urinating all together at the same time. I wasn´t in the group because I hate beer and I don´t drink water in suspect places, so I was dehydrated and could be designated the official lookout.
That´s when bad luck struck, because immediately after they began to urinate we saw a light and heard an approaching bus engine.
The boys tried to rush and urinate faster, but forget it. The bus turned the corner, and pointed at them with its bright headlights. They knew they were convicted: right there, fully visible in the shining bus lights, they looked just like a bunch of urinating drunks instead of distinguished foreign visitors.
And to make matters worse the one who was more exposed could be seen real good from the bus, so he turned right to hide his pecker, and that made him piss on the feet of the next guy, who was so startled that he in turn jumped and spun while he was urinating…. and urinated on the buttocks of the third, and then all hell broke loose and they formed a circle of well dressed gentlemen urinating on each other. It was pretty funny to watch them run down the street to get away from the bus, which was quite useless because the bus was moving in the same direction. I almost fell on the street rolling around and laughing.
Fortunately, the bus driver was in good humor, so he stopped the bus. Our translator told him these foreigners had been invited to visit Azerbaijan by their big shot Aliyev, and that convinced the driver to put the bus at our disposal. So we all climbed aboard. However, the driver gave us orders not to sit down because he didn´t want the bus to smell like urine.
We had to give him a large tip so he would drop us off a few meters from the Intourist hotel, but we arrived in one piece. Somehow my friends went through lobby security and up to their rooms without further mishap. The next day they had another adventure when they took their clothes to the cleaners. But that’s another story.