The morning after I landed I was wide awake sometime between four and five, despite hoping that I’d beat the jet lag by staying up til midnight (conking out completely on two plane rides probably didn’t help, but it sure seemed like a good idea at the time). I’d walked around, grabbed dinner (lavash, not McDonald’s, as the realtor had suggested), and come back to read. That didn’t turn out to be enough to de-lag, but the early morning let me read and tidy up as well. I met the head of the office at 9:30 and got an introduction to the program. Then we went to the office. I hadn’t been able to find housing as low as I wanted it nor figure out Baku locations, so someone had been helping me out and we were set to go apartment hunting. Around flat 3, things were beginning to feel decidedly HGTV.
And so I bring you...
House Hunters International: Baku
The brief: An apartment for short stay this summer as low as possible, but at least under $500. The internet had proven that Baku is expensive for this part of the world, and so I couldn’t find a place beforehand. Sahila from the office had done some work at my request as well, but without cash in hand and not sure what I’d take, she had suggested a short-term stay upon arrival and going from there. My concerns were price and location (if not near the office, then near public transport). I’ve done the Soviet apartment thing before so I figured it wouldn’t be too different, and I could wash clothes by hand if I had somewhere to hang them to dry. If possible, I wanted to be near the metro, as that looked like the best way to get to church.
So, Sahila, Zaur the office driver, and I went out to meet the realtor.
Apartment 1: Room with a View
Location: Center, walking distance from the office.
Price: 500 manat a month
This was a nice apartment, with a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and separate rooms for the toilet and the bath. It also had a balcony with a view to the Caspian Sea. The price was not mentioned upfront, and when I asked and they started negotiating, it became clear I’d be paying a lot for a view I’d be earning walking up five or six floors.
After this I made clear that price was my biggest concern and that I’d be happy with a smaller place. As another lady at the office stated later that afternoon, they probably anticipated a bit more money and a lot more demands.
Apartment 2: Small price, small room
Location: Center, walking distance from office.
Price: 220 manat for the first monthm 200 for the second.
What the first place offered in spaciousness and view, the second compensated for. My thought before entering was that it’s good I don’t drink much, as the stoop extends into the stairs, including a little ledge over the stairs below. The hallway was narrow, and it was essentially a very tiny bedroom, a hallway with a two-burner stovetop, and a bathroom with a slanting roof and the shower jutting out from the wall. When I remembered later to ask about hanging laundry, the realtor thought it’d be in the stairwell at the next landing. Sahila was not impressed with its cleansliness. The landlord didn’t seem to mind.
Location: I still don’t know the city well enough, but the nearest metro stop was southwest, and this definitely wasn’t central.
Price: 300 manat
I entered a courtyard that reminded me a little of the home of my host family in Dakar, Senegal, a small compound of sorts. The whole thing, a tiny house basically, would be mine. The bedroom wasn’t really large but it was much nicer than the second apartment (also, clean). It also connected to a nice, small kitchen. The bathroom was in a separate outhouse, down a few steps I immediately foresaw tripping on (me plus slightly treacherous stairs is a scraped knee waiting to happen). The bathroom was fairly large, no divider between the shower and the toilet, and the toilet was one of those holes in the ground. The woman must have really wanted to rent a lot, because she offered cleaning help, cooking, to show me around, and said she’d buy a washing machine. The walk back from the bus wouldn’t be long, although the one to it would be longer. The metro was not at all close.
I thought these were my only options and, not having someone else to accomodate, I did the little “weighing of the pros and cons” by myself. The first was out because of price. The other two were harder. I knew I could live in either and deal with it, but a low price versus a nice place was tough. And I must confess, I have a weakness for toilets with seats, even if the rest of the apartment is crappy (and walking distance to the office). I was ready to go for the tiny place because of its location and price when Sahila came and said they had called another realtor and had another place to look at.
Location: Not in the center, didn’t catch the Metro name but it was “five minutes” from the metro.
Price: 280 manat (after some negotiation)
This was a decent apartment with a small, separate bedroom, a kitchen (crowded: the oven - not standard - was completely blocked, and the shower/bath was in the kitchen as well). My Azeri companions seemed to be negotiating and I thought it was a done deal when we heard about another one.
Location: Center, about two blocks from the office.
Price: 300 manat.
This apartment was set back from the street in a courtyard, which seems pretty typical of Soviet style (which often has multiple buildings for the same street number which, in the centers especially, can be found through alleyways into courtyards). It had its own entrance and there were families around. It was essentially a studio apartment, with some furniture, a fridge, cooktop, and bed. Although the shower is just in the bathroom, and it didn’t have a washer, it was clean and the family renting it out friendly.
Unlike House Hunters, I won’t go through the pros and cons of each, and just say that I took the last one. The next day they brought both a TV and a washer, too, and it is less than ten minutes to walk to the office. The landlady has been practicing some English with me. She also has two adorable children, and her school-age daughter read to me from her English text books (I was not surprised to hear she’s a straight-A student - she did quite well with some things students I’d had of the same age had struggled with).
Things I learned apartment hunting:
Of the apartments, only two had ovens as well as stoves; the rest just had cooktops so I guess that’s what people use for cooking most of the time. All but the one I chose had TVs (and now it does, too), and I think they were all hooked up to satellites. Most of the landlords and landladies seemed to think washing machines were, if not a necessity, pretty close. Also, there doesn’t seem to be a standard light switch height - the place I stayed the first night had them all quite low, one apartment had them quite high, and where I am now they’re probably about three and a half feet high.
I think either I am a much slower walker than Azerbaijanis, or they underestimate walking times (or both), because everything seemed to be only five minutes when described.And my communication style seems to be quite different from Azeri standards; I thought I had said I’d take apartment 4, but I guess I wasn’t... forceful enough in stating it. Listening to my neighbors, I get the impression that, like Russian, Azeri just has a different style of communication, sounding a lot harsher to American ears (even though it’s probably just normal conversation).
I started work on full force Monday getting up to speed and learning about the work here at SEDA. They have three areas of focus, and most of the work has been in the first because that’s what they have approval for. That involves economic development in rural areas and I think getting people there more involved in local governance. The third component, which I hope to do some work in, involves legal frameworks for citizen participation in government. I spent Monday mostly reading up on that, and will probably be re-reading and making sure I understand as I talk to some coworkers and get more information about it. The office is very pleasant and everyone friendly. I’m looking forward to learning more.
Baku is an interesting city; some things seem very similar to Moscow, but some seem quite different, much more Middle Eastern. It really is a crossroads. I can’t pick out much Azeri, which is similar to Turkish, yet, but it’s peppered with Russian words. I look around the street signs and see Azeri, English, and words Azeri got from Russian but written in Latin letters (for example, “apteka” is pharmacy, and I’ve seen several - it is always a little strange to see Russian words in Latin letters). Also, the city is very green - there are beautiful parks in bloom and green-leafed all around the center from what I can tell. The Caspian Sea is beautiful (and in walking distance) but the oil is so plentiful it creates an oily sheen in the water. And the celebrant for Sunday’s Mass (which included Confirmation) was the Bishop of Tehran.
Looking forward to what Baku has in store next.