Sunday, May 8, 2011

Blue Skies and Parachutes

It’s a good thing the skies finally cleared up, not only for my own sanity’s sake, but also for the arrival of Stephanie’s parents and the international parachute competition (yes, you read that correctly) that took place at “Balakan International Airport.” I thought Portland International Jetport was small; it looks like O’Hare compared to this grassy runway and single building that houses two very old double-wing planes and the pilots and jumpers that are training in them. To be fair, Balakan does not exactly see the level of tourism that Maine does. Anyway, my trusted friend Elvin came through again, and offered to take the Ormstons (Stephanie, Darlene, and Doug)  and me to this competition commemorating Heydar Aliyev’s 88th birthday.
It had been raining for quite some time, so a sunny day and no wind meant perfect conditions for the competition. As we arrived, we were blown away by the number of people in attendance. Kids were running around eating ice cream while men examined the planes and women complained of the heat while wearing 7 layers of clothing.
Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Russia, and Azerbaijan were all represented.
We greeted the usual suspects: ministry officials, teachers, a few very friendly generals, students, other community leaders, and even a Russian astronaut! As Stephanie and I made our rounds, we noticed a girl waving at us. We both looked at each other confused. We recognized her from one of our many clubs, but she was wearing a jump suit…and a parachute!!! In fact, it looked like the first parachute ever made! We hustled over, and without really even saying hi, we asked what the hell she was doing. Layla nonchalantly explained that she would be jumping out of the plane with a number of other young Azeris. Although she was not in the competition and thus would simply fall from the sky and softly land (we hoped) wherever the mountain wind might take her, she was really jumping! We asked if she had ever done this before. She had…once…a year ago. We stayed with her for quite sometime like concerned parents, ignorantly inspecting her equipment as if we knew what we were actually inspecting. Eventually, and quite reluctantly, we left her and rejoined Doug and Darlene. In no time, the teams and our dear Layla boarded the plane and it took off. The plane circled a couple times, and before we knew it there were parachutes decorating the sky, and we watched in amazement as they gracefully made their way back down to earth, struggling to follow their path as we squinted into the bright sun above. Everyone landed safe and sound.
Later on, when it was proudly announced that the Azeri team (3 men and 2 women) had placed second overall, the crowd roared with pride. As the team made its way to the podium, despite wearing Azeri track suits and obviously representing Azerbaijan, I was surprised that they looked nothing like Azerbaijanis. They looked very much like Russians. In fact, I looked more Azeri than these guys! It was bizarre seeing this team wave the Azerbaijani flag and be so proudly cheered for despite the fact that they were so clearly not Azeri! I would later find out that they were, in fact, not Azeri but Russian. The Azerbaijani parachuting team only began 3 years ago, so the government pays these people to represent Azerbaijan while ethnic Azeris train to represent themselves. Confusing right!? Regardless, it was an exciting day and it was so wonderful to share it with Doug and Darlene!

Just got back from the Georgian Pilgrimage in Qax! Exhausted! More to come ASAP!

Looks like something right out of an Indiana Jones movie
A big picture of Heydar on the baloon
Stephanie and I with Layla pre-jump!
Russian and Tajikistan teams

Maybe Layla?

Doug, Darlene, Stephanie, Elvin
Go Azerbaijan!

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