Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Digital diplomacy

Main street, Lakic, Azerbaijan
From Baku we moved to the little village of Lakic, which involved several hours grinding up good mountain roads in a big tour bus followed by another hour lurching up much worse roads in an old Mercedes minibus.  It was the first long bus journey of the trip, but even intermittent air-conditioning and a sore behind couldn't keep me from smiling at the prospect of climbing high enough to escape the oppressive desert heat of the Caspian coast.  Indeed, before long sand and scrub gave way to grape plantations, grasslands, and even forests that might have been snatched from Bavaria.

Where wishes come true...

The village was very much a one-horse town, centered on a picturesque cobbled main street so narrow and winding you had to back into a shop or around a corner sometimes to get out of the way of passing cars.  The accommodations were very impressive for such an out-of-the-way place, and the scenery was nice, but the highlight quickly became the people.  Suddenly it felt like Pakistan in that many folks were charmingly bashful at first yet eager to converse once addressed, and only too happy to have their photos taken, gazing gleefully at the result as if they'd never seen their own image before.  English was very scarce, but people made heroic efforts to cross the language barrier--often expressing shock that foreigners such as us didn't speak Russian, the only second language older people have any knowledge of.
Children in front of Lekic mosque
ASIDE: as I cheerfully snapped portraits of everyone who seemed interested, I reflected on how much technology has changed the basic relationship between local and traveler, and the way humans process their own images.  As little as ten years ago I was scolded by a salt-gatherer in Bolivia who was making sure I didn't sneak any of him in my picture of the landscape.  Aymara Indians still believed that taking a photograph of someone was akin to stealing their soul.  Five years ago, I could snap a shot of someone (after they consented), shake hands, exchange pleasantries, and that would be that: they would never see the result, nor expect to--unless they took the time to give me an address and beg me to mail a copy, which was very rare.  Children, and sometimes adults, were often so tickled by the strange mechanics of a full-size camera that they were happy just to see the contraption work.  Once digital cameras became popular, and I still shot film, I found myself in the awkward position of shooting a portrait of someone and then being unable to show them the result immediately.  More than once people got quite angry about this.  By now this instant feedback has become so normal that in Pakistan many people would ask to have their picture taken by multiple people in the group, just so they could see it on different screens.  I lucked into a lot of extra portraits simply because my camera happened to have the biggest screen.  Few people here have stand-alone cameras, so I think they're still impressed by these big black beasts we tourists whip out, but cell phones with cameras are now so ubiquitous that the novelty of having your image captured and demonstrated must be all but gone.  There are few parts of tourism as thrilling to me as the warmth that instantly radiates from someone after seeing his own likeness on the back of my camera, but I also had enormous respect for the old Aymara man who really believed his own image was too precious to be captured, and it saddens me to think that such an attitude is probably all but extinct.
Man on "Main Street," Lekic
Man at roadside market

We backtracked a bit to pick up the first bus and continue to Seki (pronounced Sheki), a surprisingly large city that sprawls for miles and miles up the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, famous for its caravanserais and halvah, among other things.  In the 'stans "caravanserai" usually means the ruins of what looks something like a Turkish bath, but here it's a well-preserved palace with some fairly ornate brick- and plasterwork on the outside and an absolute orgy of rococo murals on the inside.  The basic themes are common to any Islamic building: plants, flowers, pomegranates, fountains, but never have I seen them realized in anywhere near so much color and precision--it's almost as if someone tore out the illuminations from a Moghul book and plastered them all over the walls.  Unfortunately, photos are strictly forbidden--one lady in our group got a severe upbraiding from a guard, and the temporary confiscation of her camera, for trying to sneak one shot. 

To me "halvah" is an oddly grainy, mildly sweet paste vaguely reminiscent of peanuts, even though I don't think it actually contains any.  Here it's much closer to baklava.  We visited a cottage-factory where a man roasted hazelnuts over an open fire and then pan-fried them with coarse sugar--to make a different confection from halvah proper, it turns out.

Tomorrow it's on to the border and back into Georgia.
Boy cutting halvah


  1. Nice photos!--esp. 1,3, and 5 (the older man). Bravo for being engaged enough with the people to earn their cooperation, tho' you make it sound not all that difficult.

    I hope other visitors take a second to click on and enlarge each pic.

    Why would an old turkish bath be too sacred for photos? My goodness, we humans think we're important, with all our rules and regulations and declarations about what's sacred . . . . The cynic in me is glad to hear it's not just Americans who are bloated on themselves and their definitions of the divine (if that's even the issue). Everybody needs to be boss of something, I guess.

    As for the cobbled street, what good is a street too narrow for a Cadillac? More seriously, that is REALLY a cool scene.

    I enjoyed all of this, but maybe your aside more than anything. Keep 'em coming, please.

  2. I think the halvah we are used to is made of sesame paste--like tahini, only sweet. Those pan-fried hazelnuts sound yummy! I thought caravanserai were mini-fortresses along the silk road in which the merchants and their wares and camels could spend the night safe from bandits, no?