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

Discovering Dubai

Hello Dear Readers!

As you all know, I had just recently hopped a plane from Ethiopia back to Dubai, in order to meet my brother PJ for our six days in the UAE.

I wrote about coming here earlier this year, and explained how I used both the Citi Prestige 4th night free and a promotion from Starwood that gave me two more free nights in order to stay six nights for the price of three at the St. Regis Dubai. This is important, because the hotel is way too expensive for me to stay at otherwise. Our room was fantastic, and I took a couple surreptitious photos of the hotel as possible, so you guys could see the kind of ridiculous luxury of the hotel.

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Now, one of the best parts of the St. Regis brand is the inclusion of a 24 hour butler service, which brings your luggage up for you, unpacks it, provides tea and coffee service on request, and presses two items of clothing per day for free. As you guys can see from the photo below, the only thing I had with me was my backpack, which was full of dirty laundry to boot, so I declined the unpacking service offered. Something about a tuxedo clad butler pulling out a plastic bag full of dirty laundry felt a little less than…luxurious. Especially when that was all I had!

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Pictured: All my luggage

However, since the hotel had me feeling all kinds of fancy, I sprung for a real wash with their laundry service, and my clothes (and nearby strangers) thanked me for the cleaning in a washing machine rather than a sink. Don’t ask me how much it cost.

I had an entire day to myself before PJ showed up, and since my flight from Ethiopia didn’t land until 4am, I slept in pretty late. That is, until a butler showed up with a fruit platter and I answered the door in my underwear. I’ve had better days.

Did you guys know it’s Ramadan? When I bought the tickets to Dubai, I didn’t even think about it, but the city essentially shuts down during the day for the entire month. Eating and drinking in public is against the law, and if you’re a dirty heathen they have special segregated areas for you to satiate your hunger if you must eat.

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Shamelessly drinking coffee during daylight hours.

However, being Ramadan meant there were all kinds of awesome feasts going on every single night. Obviously PJ and I took full advantage of it, and devoured quantities of food that would otherwise be shameful. Don’t worry, full details are coming.

Like I said, I was there alone for the first day, so I ended up doing iftar (breaking of the fast) by myself. I asked the St. Regis concierge to arrange a reservation for me, and *deigned* to allow the chauffeur service to drive me to the restaurant.

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This will suffice.

If you guys aren’t familiar with Ramadan, and iftar, it’s a time that’s very family/ friend oriented, and everyone heads out in large parties to celebrate together. So when I showed up alone, in the middle of Dubai, I attracted many strange looks. Nevertheless, the food was amazing and threw me straight back to Jordan (which I only left a little over a month ago. Isn’t that weird?) I really miss that place! Anyway, PJ showed up around 11pm, and we stayed up late before heading to our supremely comfortable beds in preparation for the busy days ahead.

Looking forward to telling you about them!

-Carissa “I swear I’m super rich” Rawson