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Monday, September 28, 2009

Notes from the Theater of Life archives

Instead of going to the ticket window and being told that tickets for the Tbilisi-Baku train had been sold out, I went straight to the conductor of wagon 3 and arranged a berth from him directly.

“Where you from?” he asked.

“Chicago.”

“Yes, I’ve seen it on television… England?”

“No, America.”

He lit my cigarette and we filled the gaps between puffs with small talk before he popped the inevitable question some cultures actually find boorish.

“How much you make?”

“About five-hundred dollars a month,” I decided to say.

“Only?”

“I don’t need much.”

He responded with a greasy laugh, barring an impressive investment of gold and said, “In Baku Americans make much, much more.”

The odor of European trains get denser and more viscid the further east you get. The Tbilisi-Baku train is a box of solid impurity threatening to contaminate the body with its suffocatingly fecal permanence. You sit and wonder why the windows have to be sealed shut and then stop thinking.

I was escorted to an empty compartment, sat and adjusted my zen. I could hear the jolly conductor tell some colleagues a couple of doors down how there is an American on his wagon that makes four-hundred dollars a month. They all laughed. Then two Georgians entered my compartment with nothing but ten liters of home-made wine as baggage.

After the routine preamble about food, women and wine, the train lurched eastwards and the bigger Georgian asked, “Who is that hocus-pocus American… You know... David?”

“Copperfield?”

“Yes, Copperfield. Jewish. He’s with Satan.”

“Satan?”

“Yes, he can made a train wagon disappear, I’ve seen it,” he said, while his friend nodded his head as if they imagined our train disappearing with us and their wine before arrival.

“No, not Satan. He does it with mirrors,” I said.

Fifteen hours later we entered the dry beige suburbs of Baku. Stepping off the train, before you can take your first breath of fresh Caspian air, dozens of mustached men envelope you with sky-scraping stacks of manat for sale. Behind them are a barrage of taxi drivers and entrepreneurs offering their cell-phones for rent. This friends, is the end of the line.

In 2006, Azerbaijan introduced new manat - national currency - with far less zeroes. 5000 old manat = 1 new. This increases the life span of wallets and reduces the "happy to meet you" bulge in the pocket.

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