Azerbaijan roads

Traveling around the world quickly confirmed my belief that people are primarily good; and surprisingly human cultures generally agree upon the fundamentals of what “good” is. That formula was easy to work out – I am loyally optimistic about humanity – but never noticed that the equation of society is skewed. The results are tipped in the favor of positive events because of people, not despite them.

My personal life scales are also tipped in favor of last-minute planning, disorganization, and a level of forgetfulness that often lead me to my most memorable travel experiences.

atashgah fire templeHitching A Ride In An Unusual Trio

Baku is a fairly expensive city and some of the sites around it, like the Gobustan mud volcanoes, can’t be reached without a car. Fortunately for me, a German man staying at my hotel in Baku happened to be headed to the airport, stopping at the Atashgah Fire Temple along the way.

The driver agreed to let me hitch a ride and take me to a few sites around the Absheron Peninsula for a small fee. We arrived at the Fire Temple, snapped a few photos, and drove off to Heydar Aliyev International Airport. From there I said goodbye to one of the many friends for a day I’ve made in my travels, wishing him well on his way.

The Detour To The Story

Azerbaijani is the closest Turkic relative linguistically to Turkish; so instead of an awkward silence that’s common on such trips, I chatted with my driver. (My memory devoured his name weeks ago.) In his early 60s, we talked about family, Azerbaijan’s Soviet days, and his life; while I occasionally made him laugh with my best attempts at an Azeri accent using words I picked up on a Turkish comedy show. We headed to Nardaran Fortress.

A somewhat unremarkable structure built 700 years ago, Nardaran Fortress has a small indoor and outdoor museum adjacent to it. Before we left in the morning, I neglected to stop by an ATM for cash, relying that the small amount of money in my pocket I didn’t bother to count to last me the day. It didn’t, so I had to borrow for entrance from my driver who gave me a bit extra in case I needed it. Around 20 manat (~$25) before arriving to the museum; I put it in my wallet.

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Nardaran Fortress AzerbaijanMy Mistake Or Yours?

We walked up to the office by the entrance and I pulled the single bill from my wallet cluttered with receipts, expecting about 18 manat back from the woman casually sitting behind a desk. Instead, I got 80, a large sum in Azerbaijan (and no small change for a budget traveler either). I told her that the change was wrong several times and eventually the entire office was involved. She was persistent that there was no error, I had handed her a hundred bill.

After some back and forth, my driver suggested that perhaps I had the bill in my pocket and gave it without realizing it. My pockets were, after all, cluttered with paper. There were 4 people telling me I counted wrong – completely believable to myself. Perhaps I was, or maybe there was some underground drug money going around? Much stranger things have happened to me.

The Numbers Don’t Add Up For Me Good Or Bad

Along the drive I counted the money over and over; something wasn’t right. Everyone had told me I was mistaken before we left – now more than 40 kilometers away, my driver said, “you look troubled.” We pulled over and counted again. He said he didn’t think it possible the woman would give such a large sum incorrectly but it didn’t matter, “we’ll go back and find out. Even if we’re wrong, at least out consciousnesses will be clear.” We turned around.

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Confirming With Our Eyes

As we pulled up some time later to the Nardaran Fortress museum, the woman and her staff were waiting outside. She was visibly shaking yet profusely thanking us as we got out of the car. Had we driven off she told us, she would likely have lost her job. Convinced earlier I handed her a 100 bill, after we left the mistake became apparent.

To be honest, I was half expecting to look like a fool upon arrival. I’ve mixed up money many times before. Or my driver could also have easily convinced me he had handed me a 100 bill, keeping the discrepant change for himself. Of the many things that could have gone wrong, the few things that could have gone right, did. My driver later told me he thought I was wrong yet didn’t want me to leave Azerbaijan with any doubts. Rather, it further solidified what travel has been showing me over and over – things always work out – with a strong tendency for the better.