April 4: Qobustan
While waiting for his friend to pick us up in Baku, Namiq (my souvenir-shop friend) and I had a rather interesting conversation about gender norms in Azerbaijan. It didn't take me long to assert that I would not be marrying an Azeri man, as the vast majority of them allegedly do not "let" their wives work outside the home - you know, the good old "a woman's place is in the kitchen" mentality. Although they may have a very male-dominated society, Azeris do have a wonderfully strong focus on family ties, seeing and supporting each other often and boasting a knowledge of several generations of family history (something that always impresses me). Sometimes I can't help but wonder whether the two social phenomena - stay-at-home women and strong family ties - are more closely related that we care to admit, or at least contemplate.
It took about an hour to drive to Qobustan, a tiny village south of Baku that boasts a national petroglyph reserve. Petroglyphs are rock carvings done by our hunter-gatherer forefathers (and mothers) around the world several thousand years ago. The petroglyphs at Qobustan are dated at 20 000 years, some of the oldest in the world, and the curator of the tiny museum at the reserve assured me that human settlements were in present-day Azerbaijan a whopping 300 000 years ago. We explored the area for a while, playing a "gaval" (rock drum) and marveling at the impressively well-preserved depictions of cows, goats, and stick people. After passing a rickety old ladder that warned against ascent, we found a climbable route through the rock crevices to the top of the cliff for some panaromic views of Baku in the distance. When I adjusted my view just right so that I could only see the sheer cliffs and hulking boulders, ıt felt so much like we had traveled back in time that I half-expected the artists themselves to come traipsing through at any moment!
From the top of the cliff, we surveyed a large area on the other side of the reserve that was formerly used for stone production. When the petroglyphs were discovered by archaeologists in the 1950s, the government notably halted production to preserve the historical integrity of the site. We then went down the Soviet-era ladder (hey, the sign only warned against going UP it!) and back to the car to begin the search for the mud volcanoes.
The guys were not very optimistic about finding these volcanoes, but I seemed to be charmingly stubborn and encouraging enough that we eventually tracked them down - and was I ever glad we did! I was thoroughly (if childishly) entertained by these little gems, though I would understand if most people didn't share my amusement. (Simple things amuse simple minds...) There were a couple dozen mounds of various sizes, though most about a metre high, and with varying degrees of hilarity according to the size of its mud eruption. The biggest ones were obviously the most fun, as you could see the thick mud pool at the top of the mound rising ever so slowly before erupting with a fantastic belch. My curiousity nearly got the better of me as I perched precariously close to the edge at the top of the biggest mound which wound up surprising me so much when it finally erupted that I nearly fell into it. I don't really know how or why they do what they do, but sometimes it's better to leave things a mystery.
After getting splattered, I realized how much fun a mud fight could be and exchanged a few good-natured chunks with my new Azeri friends amidst jokes of a new version of the Cold War (Canada vs Azerbaijan was close enough to America vs USSR to satisfy the analogy). It's a pity that we were in one of their parents' cars and thus obliged to keep it clean, otherwise it surely would have been an all-out battle royale!
On the way back, both of the guys were too tired from our rock climbing to drive so they let me take the wheel; I was promptly treated to some amusingly bewildered looks from male pedestrians who saw a female driver for perhaps the first time in their lives. I hadn't driven in nearly a year but my only concerns were the others on the road. Azeris must be some of the worst drivers in the world, committing such driving sins as passing on the right. For some reason, most of the highway had a total of three lanes for cars going in both directions but no double lines, so the middle lane was a rather chaotic free-for-all for passing and speeding. Azeris do, however, have a pretty good "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" system of flashing their headlights to warn incoming cars of speed-checking police officers ahead, for which everyone inevitably slows down by about 50 km/hr and then speeds up again as soon as they get past the radars.
Back in Baku, I was treated to a delightfully flavourful late lunch of dolma, a national Azeri dish of minced mutton and rice balls wrapped in olive oil-soaked grapevine leaves and topped with yoghurt. Later that evening, Namiq and I hung out with more of his friends, watching football on TV and playing checkers over a bottle of wine and a bar of chocolate. I'm not particularly good at checkers, but I managed to beat the alleged champion - of what, I don't know, but it was a sufficient enough accomplishment to impress them all. Or perhaps they were just impressed that I, a woman, was doing something other than cooking or cleaning : )