I may be a Peace Corps volunteer but that hasn’t keep me from developing a desire for a Mercedes-Benz car! I see them everywhere here in Masalli, Azerbaijan – guessing that nearly one-fourth of the cars are Mercedes. Even my host dad/musician drives a Mercedes. The majority of cars however are the small, 4-seater Russian-made Ladas, followed by a mix of late-model BMWs, KIAs, Hyundais, and Toyotas, with a smattering of Hondas and Volkswagens. A new Chevrolet dealership opened on the main street recently.
I am puzzled by the number of luxury cars and SUVs I see. I read recently that the average monthly income in Azerbaijan is 400 manat which is approximately 500 US dollars per month. Mind you, the cost of living is also much less here, but how can that small income support an expensive vehicle? I guess it could be a number of factors including the increasing availability of credit to make large purchases plus the low price of gasoline.
Azerbaijan is quickly developing its own car culture. The government is building and repairing better roads through-out the country. Locally, car repair shops and car washes seem to pop up along streets and roads every week. Due to the dust in this area, it is not unusual to see men using a bucket of water to meticulously wipe off their car. I’ve also decided there must be a universal need for some drivers to turn up their car radios full blast, or to squeal the wheels when they start up from a stoplight. It is also my impression that cars always have the right-of-way.
Almost all taxis – and there are many – are Ladas, a stiff-riding car that reminds me of a 1983 Mazda GLC I once owned. To ride in a Lada taxi is to know that power-steering, power brakes, or power anything is not standard equipment. Neither is automatic transmission since most are stick-shift.
There are times when I’d like to get behind the wheel and drive into the Azerbaijan countryside, but that would be the end of my Peace Corps service. PC Volunteers are not allowed to drive a car or motorcycle in this country. Nor can we take public transportation after dark. The roads and drivers are not considered safe.
There is one noticeable difference about the car culture in rural Azerbaijan compared to cars in the capital city of Baku: few women drivers! Also, women do not ride in the front seat of a car. Someone suggested that it is because men want to protect women so they do not allow them to drive or sit in the front where others can see them. However, when I told the male teachers at my school that I drove a car in America, they expressed surprise. They acknowledged that it was okay for me to drive, but really hadn’t considered that their wives and daughters could drive too.
Peggy (Margaret) Reinhardt is a Minneapolis Wedge resident serving in the US Peace Corps as an English teacher in the central Asian country of Azerbaijan. She maintains a blog about her experience at www.inspiredtoretire.blogspot.com