Reflections on a Strange Land

I was recently asked to write about an "adventure" I had. There were many good times in Georgia, but none so strange as those in Azerbaijan:

I spent nine months working and studying in the Republic of Georgia on a Fulbright, an experience that oscillated between hilarious and depressing. One of my most thrilling side trips was to Azerbaijan, a nation that is a dictatorship in all but name. As we crossed the border into Azerbaijan by night-train, we were woken by strange men in teal, fuzzy uniforms complete with teal, fuzzy hats: the national border guards. They searched our luggage for radioactive materials and questioned us one-by-one in a sort of friendly, “we-could-make-you-disappear” kind of way. In Azerbaijan, we saw natural wonders and quotidian curiosities: a flaming hillside that had been continuously on fire for over 100 years due to crevices of natural gas; a man roasting a leg of goat, complete with hoof and fur, with a handheld propane torch on the roadside; state-sponsored media characterizing a neighboring country as “baby-killers”, complete with graphic propaganda; an archaeological site containing some of the oldest petroglyphs in the world, close enough to touch; teatime at a delightful Azeri tea house on a grassy knoll. I expected the country to be surprise me, but the shear number of ways it contradicted my assumptions and itself was overwhelming and delightful.