Ganja, Azerbaijan

Ștefan Cândea
On the roads of Karabakh, the clutch started to skid, slowly at first and then more and more violently. The roads up the mountains solved the problem. We drove on for another 1.500 km and, when we set out for Abkhazia from Baku, the clutch plate gave in for good. Those very ‘Christian’ curses laid upon us by poverty-ridden, frustrated intellectuals and zealots furious at us for not having posted anything about churches or monuments must have been effective. We briskly pulled over and ended up right in front of a car service. Well, it was actually a vulcanization workshop with a garage where the most popular car in the region, Jiguli, is usually fixed.

I knew there was something wrong with the clutch so I had already prepared my speech in Russian. The mechanics turned the motor on all sides, nodded their heads and told us to have the car towed to Baku. We learn our car can be fixed at practically the same distance, but in Yevlakh, on our way to Georgia. We choose this option. A local brings out his Lada, procures some rope and we hit the road. 120 km on a road which turns into an earth road with holes on pretty large sections. The knots come undone, the rope breaks loose several times, so the distance between our cars keeps decreasing. The driver doing the towing takes up speed to 90/hour.

In Yevlakh we go from one service to the other – they only repair Ladas. The guy who towed our car cashes in his money and leaves. And here we are…in the limelight – the mechanics and their assistants from three auto services have gathered in the yard where the car has been shunt and everybody puts in his two cents. The verdict: we have to wait a few days until a new clutch plate is delivered from Baku. The biggest problem is that Russian is no longer spoken by everyone. We decide to ask them to facilitate the towing to Ganja. We negotiate the price with two military officers and finally reach an agreement. We don’t have much of a choice. The officer grabs the wheel and we use the same rope which comes undone twice on the way. We enter Gendzakh at rush hour, so I have to stand up from time to time to see if the rope still holds.

When we reach the car service, we calm down a bit: the yard is full of foreign cars, especially Mercedes. A professional mechanic gives the car a look and tells us to have some tea while we wait. It’s already afternoon. A stream of incomprehensible questions storms in on us. Ramiz, a portly guy, with a relic of a respectable mechanic’s belly and his serene gaze, joins our table. He’s an electronics engineer and has specialized in Moscow in computerized car diagnostics (mainly on Mercedes). He apologizes for his bad English and asks us what the hell we’re doing in Ganja. He loves the idea of a journey around the Black Sea and recounts his travels in Europe.

From here on, Ramiz becomes our protector. Calmly, but tenaciously, he gets involved in the repairing process, talks to the other mechanics, asks for opinions right and left. In the meantime, he gives us some fatherly advice; he’s amazed to find out we aren’t married, have no children and on a pretty authoritarian tone tells us to come to our senses. Upon hearing we have been to Armenia, he goes black in the face. He says the Armenians have been their enemies for centuries and proceeds to narrate in full detail how they massacred children and old people in the villages of Karabakh. Ganja is only a few tens of kilometres away from the conflict area and everybody here was active in the war. I ask him if they’ll ever make peace with the Armenians. Ramiz spent four years in the trenches. His answer: perhaps their children, but his generation surely not.

The car cannot be fixed tonight. It’s already on the platform; the head mechanic says he needs help and promises the car will be ready on Saturday, that is, the following day. Saturday morning, after inviting us to tea, five mechanics convene around the Ford. They decide they do not have the necessary space to take the engine apart – they have no car lifting system, only the ‘traditional’ holes in the middle of the garage. Razim tells me he has already talked to a Turkish mechanic who has recently opened up a very well-equipped car service. The guy is waiting for us. The car is towed to the new service. The only problem is that the head mechanic is on his way back from Baku and will probably arrive sometime in the afternoon. There I am, alone with the owner of the car service and his friends who invite me to tea. The owner is Kurdish (former karate champion) and we manage to understand each other in a mix of Russian, Turkish and English. He says that if the car needs a new clutch plate, it might take four days for the piece to arrive from Baku, Tbilisi or even Turkey. Ford isn’t such a popular brand in Azerbaijan. After a three-hour conversation, his wife invites us to lunch.

I and Petruț decide to go for a walk about town. The mechanic should be back around five. Our walk around the central square creates a great stir. Under Heydar Alyiev’s gaze from a huge billboard overlooking the centre, our Bermuda shorts get the youngsters giggling. From the terraces (which serve only tea) occupied solely by men, we are being reproved on quite a violent tone by an older man. Long pants are mandatory for everyone.

When we return to the car service, the car has already been taken apart and the clutch plate rests on the table. To our surprise, Razim has come to see for himself how things are going. The plate has no streaks whatsoever and is as smooth as a baby’s skin. Everybody’s waiting for the mechanic who seems to be taking forever. We ask Razim if we can find a second-hand clutch plate in town. He makes some phone calls and gets in gear, so to speak. We must hurry as the shops will soon be closing. It’s Saturday evening. He stops a cab and we jump in it, used clutch plate in hand. On the way, he asks the cab driver which would be the best place to go. We end up at a shop of used pieces and from there we’re directed to a mechanic whose job is that of reconditioning clutch plates. The cab whirls into a huge yard with a row of garages, each garage specializing on one reconditioning operation. An interesting lesson on anti-consumerism. Nothing is thrown away, everything is reconditioned. The mechanic in charge of clutch plates detaches the used parts, takes the cast and cuts out new pieces which he rivets back on the plate. In half an hour we’re done: we have a brand new clutch plate. Razim is virtually beaming and seems happier than I am. No thanks are necessary, he says; it’s his duty to help if he can.

After we return to the car service, we wait some more as the head mechanic needs to inspect the plate and assemble everything. The guy doesn’t reach Ganja until nightfall. In ten minutes we have the diagnostic: the clutch kit needs a few adjustments which can be made only the next day. Another night in Ganja. He promises we’ll be on our way to Georgia Sunday around noon.

Razim encourages us: that’s life, don’t worry, everything will end well. He makes a sign towards the sky and I ask: In In šāۥ Allāh? He starts to laugh approvingly.