But First, Let Me Take a Selfie

Hello Dear Readers!

Our final day in Baku dawned bright and not-very-early-because-it-was-vacation. We had a tour of the Old City to do, but otherwise the day was ours, and we had a blast.

But first, I just need you to take a look at the donut wall available in the executive lounge.

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Free! Unlimited!

How am I supposed to not eat that?

Anyway, I liked this tour guide a lot better than the other, and we ended up spending an extra couple of hours after the tour together, grabbing lunch, trying pomegranate wine, and convincing him to show us where to actually buy it. (You better believe I was bringing some home. That stuff is delicious).

The guide was pretty new, so the “guiding” ended up with him mostly walking around with us through the old city, showing us the old palace and reading off the same plaques we were looking at. That’s ok though.

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In the castle

We finished up fairly early (like 3ish?), so had plenty more time to explore. The guide had suggested we head to the funicular, which went up past the city and gave some pretty incredible views.

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Speaking of incredible views.

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Harrison, perfectly timed so as to ruin my picture.

Once at the top, there were tons of people taking tons of photos. And I like a good selfie as much as the next guy, you know? That’s cool. But there was this one guy.

Oh my god. This guy….

His recently bleached tracksuit glinted in the setting sunlight as he held his selfie stick in front of himself- lips pursed, cooing for the camera as he tilted his head left, then right, his oiled locks just brushing his popped collar and his free hand coming down to rest, ever so gently, on his crotch.

I am not making this up.

He was there the entirety of the time we spent there, conducting his own personal modeling session, even asking Harrison to man the camera as he turned, making sure his butt was peeking out cutely in front of the magnificent background from which he posed.

He didn’t speak much English, which was good, because my lord was I talking some shit.

I then held my own modeling event, which was…mildly less successful.

We had a ton of fun, being silly and walking around up top, even managing to sneak into the Flame Towers, one of which houses the Fairmont Hotel.

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I managed this by arrogantly walking inside and demanding to know where the bathroom was. Obviously, only a guest would do something so outrageous.

Yes, it was beautiful.

We then finished up the evening by returning to Marivanna, spending hours eating as much as humanly possible.

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Does anyone ever get tired of seeing me? Probably not!

Baku was an excellent trip. It’s dirt cheap and different, full of Russian (and Arab!) influence with less possibility of being kidnapped. (Probably).

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I highly recommend it.

-Carissa “Inta-Famous” Rawson

In Which I Fall Into A Volcano

Guys.

Guys.

I just…I cannot.

I left off yesterday with the end of our food tour and the knowledge that we’d be seeing our guide again the following day. So it was that I rose, slightly (lol) hungover and ready to explore some mud volcanoes.

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Isn’t this cool?

Let me start off by saying that our group had a few more people in it, which took the edge off the crazy from the tour guide. I appreciated that.

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We took a spiffy Mercedes van the hour and a half or so to the mud volcanoes, which are actually pretty cool. Baku is one of only a few places on the planet where you can see this type of activity, where mud “lava” flows sluggishly from multiple volcanoes, bubbling and oozing as it comes. It’s not hot, mind you, which is a good thing.

Now, if you read the title up there, you know what’s coming. You know.

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Everything is fine!

So there I was, little old me, hapless and clumsy and slightly inept, just a’walking around these volcanoes. We’re wandering from place to place, the guide slightly in front of us, taking photos and generally enjoying the scenery. Harrison had walked away and I decided it was time to move on, spotting a particularly large volcano that I thought warranted a closer look.

So off I went. One step, two steps, everything’s fine.

And then on step three, it happened.

You guys.

The floor was lava.

Aaaaaaand in I went.

Foot deep. Shoe deep. Ankle deep. Halfway up my leg and still sinking, I was mid-step and unbalanced, so what did I do? The only thing I could.

I kept walking.

Aaaaaand in went my other foot. Just as deep, just as muddy. Socks mushing and my shoes glued to the floor as I struggled to continue.

This continued for a few more steps, until I finally made it to firmer ground and collapsed on the floor laughing, with Harrison running up after me and taking advantage of the situation to create permanent evidence of this treachery.

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Horrible man.

Guys, my feet were like cement. Cement! My pants were glued to my legs and all of a sudden I was wearing a size 40 shoe.

The worst bit? It was the beginning of the day. So I spent the rest of the day stomping around in stupid lava shoes, right through an open air museum and in front of hordes of other tourists, all of whom took great joy in pointing out my situation to me, as if I were unaware.

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Strategically cropped at the leg, amirite?

And the tour guide took photos, for y’know, his Instagram. So I guess I’m famous?

The best bit?

The best bit?

You remember how I told you guys we were in a spiffy Mercedes van? Yeah. The driver wasn’t too pleased with my newfound foot situation.

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And that’s how I became the bag lady of Baku.

-Carissa “Super Smooth” Rawson

Help Me, I’ve Eaten and I Can’t Get Up

Hello Dear Readers!

Honestly, I really only spent four days in Baku. It just felt like so much longer since I ate…like…5 meals a day. To that end, for day two we had a cuisine tour scheduled. That wasn’t until the late afternoon though, so obviously we ended up eating a few meals first.

I accidentally woke up late enough that I missed breakfast, which was too bad (I hate losing out on free things), so off we went for more Azerbaijani food and also ice cream. Because why not?

Afterwards, we wandered over to the metro and just…hopped on.

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What am I doing with my life?

Have you guys ever done that? I mean, I can’t read Azerbaijani, and nor can Harrison, so we just climbed aboard and hoped for the best. It worked out pretty well, and we hopped off at some random point later down the line, where we found all the old soviet buildings and the multitudes of people gawked openly at us. Good stuff. Real stuff.

It’s a far cry from the Flame Towers and the Lamborghini dealership, I’ll tell you that. I feel like it was a part of town we (as tourists) weren’t meant to see, which made it all the cooler. Finally, late afternoon fell and we went to find our tour guide.

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Pictures from around the city

He was…something. He had a lot of *qualities*. That’s the polite way of saying he was a total crackpot, which Harrison found hilarious and which I uncomfortably endured, right down to the time he started detailing all the different ways aliens had come and spliced their DNA into ours.

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But the man did know his tea.

No, he wasn’t kidding. But he was sexist, and every time he and I were left alone, we awkwardly stared at each other over the gaping void of silence between us.

He also took us past a series of shops, one of which sold Azerbaijani honey. Now, I like honey and all, but the sign for it was written in Arabic, so obviously I had to go in. Inside was a surly looking dude, really huge and buff and kind of weird to be selling honey. The guide tells the guy that I can speak Arabic (in Azerbaijani) and the guy’s eyebrows shoot up as he looks at me.

So I address him in Arabic, right? How are you, blah, blah. Whatever. And this guys go. “Ok.”

And then every other time I tried to speak to him, he cut me off to speak in English.

Fine. Maybe he didn’t speak Arabic. But then who wrote the sign??

Alas, it is a mystery for the ages. But the honey was good.

OH! OH! I almost forgot the best part! So, he took us to a restaurant (on a food tour? Who would have thought?) and after we finished eating I got up to use the restroom. I had just seen Harrison return from it, so headed over and opened the door…right into a very surprised man using the urinal in it. He excused himself quickly and waved me inside…which I did, despite the fact that there was no toilet. I guess he thought I wanted to use the urinal?? I then quickly exited and made my way back to my table, telling the guide (and Harrison) that I’d just hold it.

It was at this point that the guide yells out across the restaurant (in Azerbaijani) something along the lines of “Yo, this girl needs to pee and ya’ll ain’t got no toilets!”

So that was how I ended up with an honor guard from the restaurant escorting me down the road to a bar, where he bade me wait outside until he could clear my pee-able status with the bar owner.

Yes, he waited for me to finish.

And then I found out he was going to be our tour guide for the next day too!

-Carissa “Honor Guard” Rawson

But What’s In Azerbaijan?

Hello Dear Readers!

It’s finally time for a new country! Are you guys ready for this? Drumroll, please…..

Azerbaijan! Now, I know a lot of you are probably thinking “what is that and why did you go there?” Well, the answer to that is simple. Azerbaijan is a former Soviet country with some pretty intense development and a relatively low amount of tourism. Since my University gave us a week long holiday (to…um…study), I decided to head on over there and see what was up.

I will tell you guys, when I returned and told my professor where I had been, she goes “Azerbaijan?” with a blank look on her face, and then after a long pause “….Borat?” (I actually spit out my drink laughing).

Now, flights to Azerbaijan are scarce, at best. And I’m sorry to inform you guys, but this time I truly could not find a decent flight using points to get there. Most flights connected either through Moscow or Istanbul and took upwards of 15 hours. However, every third day, Azerbaijan Airlines has a flight from London (and a return every 3rd day to Paris), so that’s what I ended up doing.

I spent a total of five nights, and Baku, the capital, happens to be home to some really spectacular hotels at really cheap prices (both points and dollar-wise). The J.W. Marriott Baku is one of only a few J.W. Marriotts (their flagship brand) in the world at a category 2 level, meaning it cost me just 40,000 Marriott points for my entire five night stay (Marriott gives 5th night free on award stays). In contrast, the total cost were I to pay to stay there would be just over $1,000.

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For reference, the Chase Marriott rewards card comes with a 80,000 point sign up bonus after 3k spend in the first 3 months.

Since I’m an American Express Platinum Card member, I have gold status at Marriott, which meant that I received both a room upgrade and free executive lounge access for the duration of my stay. This was excellent, since breakfast and some excellent evening tapas and drinks were available on the daily. (As if I weren’t otherwise stuffing myself).

Ok!

I’ve just got to tell you guys, I had an awesome time in Baku. As I said before, there are relatively low levels of tourism, which meant that most of the time I was delighted to find that I *wasn’t* paying the tourist tax I’ve found in nearly every other country I’ve been to. A cab across the city cost 5 bucks, regardless of the destination, so obviously I splurged just a bit.

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I was actually meeting Harrison in Baku, and for the first time in my life I trusted someone else to plan the trip. Yes, I know, it was terrifying. But I’ll give credit where it’s due, I had a lot of fun and traveling is 1000% less stressful when you don’t have to do it yourself.

Now since I was meeting him, not arriving with him, I had to figure out how to get to the hotel from the airport at 5am.

Do you guys know where this story is going?

I feel like you do.

Enter me, disheveled and angry after an overnight flight from London to Baku (6 hours too long), with my trusty backpack on and absolutely no idea how to navigate a Russian speaking country. I did, however, manage to take out some manat (their currency) in order to grab a cab, which promptly fell out of my pocket and no one told me about. Thanks, guys.

Just outside of the airport were dozens of cab drivers milling about, and I quickly found one who offered to take me to my hotel. I usually prefer to use Uber, since there’s a literal GPS track of where you’re going, but since that wasn’t an option I settled for the sketchy looking dude who came nearest to me first.

Um.

Ummmmmm.

My first hint came when we walked out to his car, which was technically a taxi but also pretty run down and janky. Ok, fine, this is Azerbaijan.

So then I got into his car and off we went, me trying desperately to look at my phone in order to avoid talking and him chatting with just about…15 words of English. (Don’t you guys do that? Stare at your phone so you look really involved and unapproachable?)

Well, it didn’t work. Five minutes into what should have been a 30 minute drive, he pulls off the side of the freeway and insists that I move up front.

No thanks, I told him politely. He insisted again and no thanks I insisted back. Then I realized he wasn’t gonna move until I did, so into the front seat I went.

At this point he decides he’s a tour guide, so he’s driving 30mph on the freeway, weaving to and fro as he points out buildings. Ok, sure.

But then he pulls off again, asking for my phone number so he can give me a tour later. He then invites me back to his house.

And yes, I know, I could have given him a fake number. But then he called me! In the car! To make sure it worked! So thank goodness I didn’t.

Off he goes again, more pointing, more invites, etc etc. Then he turns to me and goes “you are a good girl, Carissa, you know that?”

….sure.

And once more he pulls over. It’s now bright outside, since we are 45 minutes into our 30 minute journey. He wants to take a photo of me, you know, for the contact in his phone. I politely decline, and the same scenario plays out.

Ok. Fine. Take my damn photo and let’s go.

No, wait, it gets better. He then grabs my hand and shakes it, informing me once again that I am a good girl. We’re nearing the city center now, and I can almost see my hotel. Slower, slower, he drives, and he grabs my hand again.

He then declares that he loves me.

I ignore that bit and look very fixedly out the window, so he tries again, grabbing for my hand. He snags it and fucking kisses it, telling me he loves me again.

“What was that called?” He asks, mimicking the kiss he just did.

“It’s a kiss,” I tell him. I can see my hotel, just a couple hundred feet ahead, brightly lit and welcoming and full of no creepy men.

Finally, he stops, pulls up, and says,

“Can I kiss you?” while he reaches for my face.

I DON’T THINK SO, PAL.

I literally put my hand in front of his gross, creeping lips, and shoved him away. I then paid him (he tried to charge me extra!) and ran out of the cab.

Welcome to Baku!

– Carissa “At Least It Wasn’t a Proposal” Rawson