The man with the golden smile

Posted by Krista
Baku, Azerbaijan

***A tall man wearing the typical black flatcap, sporting a full set of dazzling gold front teeth, runs over and accosts us. He’s so energetic and eager that, after having crossed the border from Georgia and cycled 50 kilometres through heat and dust, we just don’t have it in us to match his conversation pace, and are apprehensive to stop and chat with him. Politely though, reservedness eeking out of pores and body language, we answer the where-froms, where-tos, whys and wherefores without too much animation, whilst preparing to get going again. But this man, Natik, is not put-off by our lack of warmth. In fact he is so excited that he hasn’t even noticed all our energies are pointing towards getting back on our bikes so we can reach our planned destination of Zaqatala before the sun sets.

“Come and drink çay!”, he exclaims, beckoning us over to a small, dimly-lit café, full of cigarette-smoking men. “Come, come!”. I look at Dan, who raises his eyebrows in a look of, “Do you really want to?”, whilst Natik’s beckoning becomes more voluptuous by the minute.

I am reminded of the words, “…to let go, or to hold on…”. We believe so strongly that we are in control of our own destiny, we makes plans and organise our pathways, and are not open to a change in direction, however big or small. We think we know what is best for us and try to manipulate the world to fit into our grand and rigid plans – which are really just arbitrary ideas that we’ve concocted.

“…to let go, or to hold on…” These words loop in my mind and, in this moment, I know I have to surrender to something deeper than myself. I look at Dan and nod – letting go – and with a golden smile Natik opens the café door.

Once inside, seated around a table with Natik and three of his friends, Dan and I begin to relax. Natik plies us with çay, served from a teapot into tulip glasses, sipped through a sweet or a rough sugar lump held between the teeth. He thinks we must be hungry and orders us kalem dolma (spicy meatballs wrapped in cabbage leaf) and salad, whilst introduces us proudly to his Azeri culture. Dan and I relax some more.

He tells us intimate tales of how he ran away from his parents house in the night so that he could fight the war in Karabakh against Armenia in the early ’90s, and compares nowadays with 18 years ago when Azerbaijan was part of the 15-country-strong Soviet Union. He invites us to stay at his home, explaining that in Azerbaijan, a Muslim country, everyone has a spare room for guests because they are revered as god. He can’t disguise his disappointment after we answer his questions about whether the same tradition exists in England.

When we finally depart, it’s with happy, full hearts and bellies – and it suddenly doesn’t matter if we don’t reach Zaqatala before the sun sets. ***

I thought that nothing particularly extraordinary had happened in this encounter, apart from some great hospitality and a gentle meeting of souls. But when we reached Baku, 10 days later, I realised that, indeed, magic had taken place. Natik – the first person we’d met in Azerbaijan – had given us so much warmth and generosity upon our arrival in his country that the spirit of his friendship accompanied us throughout. Without even knowing it, he had softened us, allowing us to open and trust more in this unfolding journey, and reminded us that the ideas we’ve created for ourselves can and may change at any given moment… and that’s not such a bad thing…

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