How travelling to Baku restored my faith in humanity

Published: April 11, 2018
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I had voyaged to Baku with tinges of fear and paranoia within my subconscious, to the point of even doubting the intentions of our first taxi driver from the airport to the hotel. PHOTO: STOCK

One major reason as to why the travel bug constantly tugs at my heartstrings, even more than the wonderment of places, is the diversity of the people I get to meet.

It is amazing how social, cultural, geographic, religious and political factors concoct such diversity in human beings, giving them a distinction in disposition, aura, colour and character. And then, people’s individual quirks and personalities make these encounters even more insightful, enriching, and sometimes life changing.

A few months ago, when I announced to my parents that I planned to travel to Baku, Azerbaijan, for the very first time, they became worried about their daughter’s safety, and wouldn’t stop with their endless cautionary lists.

“Don’t liaise with strangers.”

“Be careful of going to xyz place.”

“Make sure that your money is safe.”

I respected their concerns, and while their alarm bells were valid, I wished they would understand I was now a responsible and mature adult who could take care of herself, unlike their mental image of me as a “baby with a pacifier”.

I guess the first impression is the last impression?

Instead of pumping me up with fear, as if preparing me for battle, I wish they would have added to my pre-vacation excitement by telling me to revel in the country’s natural beauty, to learn about its history, and to marvel in the majesty of its architectural wonders.

Their panic dimmed my pre-holiday high; however, I did not let their fears overpower my mood and judgment. I believe if you travel in a state of panic, you end up attracting panicky situations. And simply being in a state of panic will deter you from enjoying your vacation, thereby deeming the entire journey futile.

I realise travel phobia and xenophobia in general are insanely common, not just in parents, but in a vast majority of people around the globe, and I can gauge the source of this “borrowed” paranoia.

News channels regurgitating horrific headlines and media productions, with films such as Taken and Hostel, will have anyone convinced the entire planet is in a state of doom and gloom, whilst stereotyping citizens of their respective countries by the antics of their worst criminals. If one were to ingest these stereotypes and clichés, then every American would be a school shooter, every Italian a mafioso, and every Pakistani an extremist – but that is not the case.

In fact, the reality is at a stark contrast to these reductionist labels. This, in my opinion, makes travel an imperative, just for the sole purpose of vanquishing this propaganda and restoring one’s faith in humanity once again.

How could we ever save the planet without trust anyway?

I had voyaged to Baku with tinges of fear and paranoia within my subconscious, to the point of even doubting the intentions of our first taxi driver from the airport to the hotel. However, all of that doubt washed away by the end of trip, thanks to the love and kindness of strangers.

I’d like to thank everybody who hosted us, gave us their time and escorted us during the trip, including Farida and Turana, two 20-something girls who worked as a humanitarian and a civil employee respectively. They would insist to meet us every day, introduced us to their friends, and connected us with influencers in Baku. Gunay from CouchSurfers took us for dinner, and showed us the beauty of Old City Baku. Seville introduced us to delicious Azeri cuisine, and Nigar and her friends took us for dinner to a very special Georgian restaurant tucked in a secretive corner of the city centre, with no agenda but that of showing us a great time and developing bonds of friendship.

With her travel partners and Farida and Turana, lovely Azerbaijani girls who took them to an Italian DIY pasta place in Baku city centre.

One particular person whom I will never forget is a shopkeeper in an ethnic shop in Old City Baku. I stirred up a conversation with him, thanks to my knowledge of Turkish, which is one of the languages spoken in Azerbaijan, other than Russian. He ended up giving me a bargain on the decorations I purchased. We then left the shop to stroll around the cobbled streets of the Old City, until he came chasing after us over a distance of almost half a mile after half an hour, and stopped us.

At the ethnic Azeri shop in Old City Baku with her travel partners.

I wondered what was up, when he handed me a note of 100 Manat (roughly Rs7,000) and told me I had forgotten my money at the shop. I was humbled to see his level of sincerity and honesty. He could have chosen to keep the cash, as I didn’t even remember I had left my money there, but he chose to do what was right and humane, and I found that remarkable.

If I had not taken this trip, I would have never known there are people out there with a high level of integrity and purity. This is not to say there aren’t strangers with ambiguous intentions, but that we should choose our beliefs based upon our own experiences, rather than simply ingesting somebody else’s narrative of “truth”, which deters us from exploration. After all, nothing great was ever achieved without having faith.

“I hope that you and your belongings are safe,” my mom texted me the next morning.

“Actually, I lost my money, but it was returned to me by a local Azeri,” I texted her back, hoping to alchemise her fear with love.

All photos: Humay Waseem

Humay Waseem

Humay Waseem

A writer and fashion designer who has a knack for social observation and comedic critique. She aspires to empower women and children to explore their inner talents and brilliance. She tweets @HumayWMD (twitter.com/HumayWMD)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.