Monday, December 20, 2010

Escape from Azerbaijan

Davo and I always buy the cheapest airline ticket. My only requirement is to go from City A to City B. Long layovers (catch up on my email), no in-flight service (bring my own snacks), and being shoehorned into a hobbit-sized seat (go to sleep) don't bother me.

A direct flight from Istanbul to Tel Aviv in the third week of December would have cost something like $400. For the bargain price of $230, however, Azerbaijan Airlines offered a ticket with a connection in Baku, Azerbaijan.

I'll give you a moment to enter Azerbaijan into Google Maps.

This is how our journey should have gone: depart Istanbul at 10:00 p.m.; arrive in Baku around 3:00 a.m.; go through the transit desk to pick up our boarding passes; catch a few hours of sleep in the terminal; depart Baku at 9:00 a.m. Easy.

The journey started off ominously when we almost weren't permitted to board the flight in Istanbul, because we didn't have an Azerbaijani visa or a letter of invitation. At Atatürk International Airport in Istanbul, a pasty man with a tight necktie and a thick accent poured through a volume that resembled the phone book, newsprint pages covered in tiny print. The Official Rules of Airplanes, Etc. He squinted at one page for a while, then, satisfied that he wouldn't be thrown into the gulag for allowing us into his country, grunted and jerked his head toward the check-in desk.

The flight to Baku was uneventful. We disembark the plane at Heydar Aliyev International Airport, and right there in the hallway is a sign for “Transit Desk.”

There's no one there.

In fact, there is no one in the terminal at all. Everyone is off the plane, into their taxi cabs, headed toward the city. We stand next to the X-ray machine and wait. A solitary sparrow zips across the terminal. I timidly tap on the glass divider. Nothing. I could just waltz into the terminal, sans security and boarding pass, but I figured I shouldn't try any monkey business in a former Soviet republic.

Oh wait—there's a security guy in a fluorescent vest. He sees us and brings over a man in a dark suit with a laminated badge hanging around his neck and a scowl hanging on his jowls. Our bags are put through the X-ray machine and we're waved through the metal detector. Mr. Scowls turns to walk away. “Boarding pass?” I inquire. “Wait here,” he barks, and walks away.

So we wait. And wait. The sparrow zips across the terminal. There are some metal benches arranged around a large pillar. The floor is linoleum, but nice linoleum. Occasionally I catch a glimpse of other men in dark suits, but not our guy. I don't think. They all seem to look alike.

It's 4:00 a.m. I'm exhausted, and Mr. Scowls isn't coming back. I pull out my sleeping bag, inflate my little neck pillow, twist earplugs into my ears, pull a bandana over my eyes, and stretch out on a metal bench.

At 7:30 a.m. I rise to consciousness and feel people staring at me. Pull off the bandana—yep, I was right. Lots of guys in black leather jackets and turtlenecks standing just over my shoulder. Am I sleeping on the set of a B-grade gangster movie? I wake up Dave and we mobilize to find our boarding passes.

I can't find Mr. Scowls—he's probably done with his shift. But like Mr. Smith in The Matrix film, there are plenty more where he came from. I approach one. Same dark suit, laminated badge, and blank, unhappy face. “Wait here,” he barks. Obediently, we wait patiently. He never returns.

I check a monitor for our gate. Strangely, the monitor shows no gate for the flight to Tel Aviv. I check another monitor. Something in Azerbaijani language. Another. Blank. Another.

Delayed until 18:30 (6:30 p.m.).

Oh shit.

I ask another Mr. Scowls about Azerbaijan Airlines Flight J2 21. He barks, “Bad weather.” I look outside. There are a few stringy clouds, no evidence of wind. “Tel Aviv,” he snarls. The current weather is Tel Aviv is sunny, 65 degrees.

Does this flight not exist? Is this why no one will give me a boarding pass?

I realize my predicament: I'm in the Heydar Aliyev International Airport terminal in Baku, Azerbaijan without a boarding pass for a flight that might not exist anyway. I can't leave the airport, as I have no visa, much less letter of invitation. This isn't a gangster movie, this isn't The Matrix, this is that Tom Hank's movie.

There's nothing to do but wait and enjoy the “ambiance.” I'm surprised by the preponderance of Russian mobster look-a-likes. This is the type of place where men smoke indoors if they want. The women favor stiletto heels on their boots and apply their make-up with a spackling knife. Faces are devoid of emotion. It looks cold outside.

The terminal has two bars and zero restaurants. In addition to trashy Swarovski crystal and handcrafts sold at Fifth Ave prices, the duty free shops sell a wide variety of booze, cigarettes, chocolates, and candy. That's it. There is nothing I would consider food. Nothing. I briefly consider what would happen if we were stuck for days in Azerbaijan. Davo and I decide that we would rather consume our calories via Captain Morgans, only 10 Euro a bottle.

The one redeeming quality of the place? A temperamental, slow, spotty wi-fi connection. Yes, I've got Facebook and no food. Isn't that an allegory for something?

We pass the time by sleeping, listening to podcasts, catching up on email, and walking laps around the terminal. I take twenty minutes to floss and brush my teeth. The soap in the lavatory smells like a candy from my childhood, but I can't place it.

Adela, Dave's cousin in Tel Aviv, has called the Azerbaijan Airlines office in Israel. They were unaware that Flight J2 21 was delayed. Hilarious. I consider purchasing alcohol. I realize it's before noon. Another lap around the terminal.

At 1:00 p.m. we break down and purchase miniature Snickers, chocolate cookies, and sour candies. They are all disgusting. I crush a cookie and leave it under a bench for the sparrows (there are two of them, I determine).

All of the monitors remain blank, with the exception of the one that says something in Azerbaijani and the one that says our flight is delayed until 18:30. I reconsider the Captain Morgans, think better of it, and do some stretches. Three Mr. Scowls and a crowd of Russian mobsters stare.

I periodically ask a Mr. Scowls about our flight. The response is always “Wait here,” and then walking away. Clever clever, these Mr. Scowls.

At one point, a Mr. Scowls says that our flight is taking off at 4:00 p.m. That hour comes and goes.

I can't find the sparrows. Poor things. I know how they feel.

Five o'clock. I'm laughing about something, maybe the absurdity of the situation, when I ask a Mr. Scowls about our boarding passes and our flight. “Wait here,” he barks, and walks away. I roll my eyes. He walks to a desk. He pulls out two white slips of paper. “Dah-Veh Day-Ann,” he announces.

Holy shit, we've got boarding passes! The papers say that J2 21 departs at 9:00 a.m, eight hours ago, but who cares—we've got something that says we can leave!

It's 6:15 p.m. Still no announcement, still nothing on the monitors, still nothing but “Wait here” from the Mr. Scowls legion. I'm losing hope. A night of Captain Morgan out of a Nalgene looms over my head. I wonder if I should call the American Embassy.

At the same moment, Davo and I spot him. He's wearing the wide-brimmed black hat of the observant Jew. He's short and squat and has a large beard. Instantly, we know that this man is going to Tel Aviv. And we are going to follow that man, stick to him like gum on a shoe, like spaghetti sauce on your favorite white shirt. If he goes to the bathroom, Dave will stalk him. If he wanders around the terminal, I will tail him. We may have no information from the monitors, from the airline, or from the Mr. Scowls brigade, but we've got Mr. Schlomo.

At 6:25 p.m, Mr. Schlomo makes his move. He's headed toward Gate 2. I know Gate 2 like my childhood home. I had watched the Azerbaijani sunset from Gate 2. Gate 2 is the home of the taller Mr. Scowls who wears a gray suit and has large bags under his eyes. There were two young children screaming at Gate 2, but then they got on the flight to Moscow (lucky). We follow Mr. Schlomo like two cats stalking a chubby mouse.

Chaos at Gate 2. Total uncertainty whether this is a flight to Tel Aviv, as there were no signs, no announcements, no monitors. A mass of people is smashed up against the desk: old bent women with thick ankles, women with dramatic eyeliner and inappropriate high heels, men with leather jackets and frowns, an adorable little girl with strawberry-colored hair. There is no queue. A woman with a cane elbows a younger man out of the way. I feel like I'm on the set of a movie set in the Wild, Wild West. My boarding pass is clamped in my right hand and my eyes are locked on Mr. Schlomo.

I hand my boarding pass to a Mr. Scowls. He tears off the stub and shoves it back at me. I hand the stub and my passport to another Mr. Scowls. He looks at both, looks at me, and scowls. And with that, I'm walking down the hallway to an airplane that shortly will fly toward Tel Aviv.

Yes, I've dramatized the story. The short version of it: our flight was delayed 10 hours. That's about it. In fact, the entire story could have been avoided if only someone from Azerbaijan Airlines had simply told us, “Your flight has been delayed until 18:30. Pick up your boarding plass here around 17:00.”

But that's not how Azerbaijan works, people. Let me remind you that this is a country whose duty-free stores stock only alcohol, cigarettes, and sugar.  Men are men here, and they'll damn well smoke inside if they want. The national airline has a 2.0 out of 5.0 rating on Chuck Norris vacations in Azerbaijan.

One doesn't simply depart from Azerbaijan. No: one must escape from it.

And I did. Thank heavens.

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