All the Wrong Ways Assumptions Took Him
I assumed.... I assumed that if I slithered down the bank and put the ditch between me and the road I would be safe. The only sign of life I had seen since I had broken camp at 7 that morning was a solitary donkey cart laden with maize haulm, driven by a tired-faced old man and his beshawled wife. I assumed there was no one else for miles.
I had assumed an awful lot since I had set out three weeks ago on my 850-mile trek across Georgia and Azerbaijan.
I had assumed the weather would be dry. It wasn't. The first three days the rain fell incessantly; my map was unreadable, my ruble notes fell apart, and my spare clothes were soaked. I had assumed, of course, that my rucksack was watertight.
I had assumed, too, from what the official at the Georgian Ministry of the Interior in the capital, Tbilisi, had said, that every bandanna'd lady tending cattle by the roadside and every policeman lounging at the street corner was Mafioso in disguise.
"This is dangerous country," he'd said. "You will be attacked, robbed."
Which is why I was struggling down this bank, looking for cover before stopping for my mid-morning break.
There was a grassy dip at the bottom, screened from the road by thorny acacia. I shrugged out of my rucksack, checked the ground for ants and snakes, which I assumed would be everywhere, and sat down.
A mile or so back I had picked a couple of apples from the untended trees of a "collective" orchard. I sliced one into quarters with my knife, leaving the skin on. A small frog watched me with serious eyes from the edge of the water in the ditch. The sun was warm, and I leaned back against my rucksack and popped a piece of apple into my mouth. It was all very relaxed.
But hardly had I gotten my teeth through the skin when I heard the rough engine noise, the spluttering exhaust of a Lada being driven hard along the road. I watched it through the branches without undue concern; the driver would be looking ahead, not searching the undergrowth at the side of the road for the only backpacker to be found anywhere that day in the countries of Georgia and Azerbaijan.
I was wrong. As it drew level with me, the driver's eyes seemed inexplicably drawn to mine. I heard the engine hesitate, and a hundred yards farther on the car stopped and then reversed back.
He was in his 30s, swarthy, wearing black trousers shiny with wear, a leather jacket, and muddied, city slicker shoes.
I assumed immediately that he was bad news. Leather jackets like his were worn by the Secret Police. I had met them in 1984 in Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. Leather jackets, dark glasses, blank expressionless faces, questions in echoing interview rooms - that was the usual progression.
He came down the bank as if he was used to coming down banks and stopped across the ditch from me. He called out something in Azerbaijani or Russian. I could speak neither and spread my hands in a gesture of incomprehension.
He leaped the ditch and stood a few feet away, looking me up and down, at my clothes, my rucksack. I offered him a piece of my apple, but he waved it away.
"Ahtuda?" he demanded. I assumed he was wanting money.
"I'm sorry, I don't speak your language." I replied.
He said nothing, just regarded me stonily, his eyes half closed. I slipped my hand over my knife. The frog leaped into the water.
Silence - him staring quietly, me assuming. Then he glanced at me, muttered something, and started back up the bank toward his car.
I let out a sigh of relief. He was going. But when, a few moments later, there was still no sound of the engine being started, I looked up. He was sitting in the driver's seat, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, thinking. Then he leaned across, lifted something out of the glove compartment, and got out again.
I assumed the worst. He had assessed the situation and seen an opportunity. My knuckles gleamed white on my knife, though I knew I could never use it.
I sat where I was, rigid. I stared at the serious frog half-submerged in the water, but my gaze was still attuned to the man working his way back down the bank, crossing the ditch, and dropping on to his hunkers beside me. I waited.
There was a touch on my shoulder. Slowly, fearfully, I turned.
"Padahrak," he said. He was swinging a small chrome object suspended from a silver chain. He bowed his head and smiled a shy smile and ceremoniously handed it to me. It was a pair of nail clippers: a gift.
I was humbled. I had dishonored him, dishonored myself. This was yet another instance of a false assumption. In fact, on the strength of my experience over the last 500 miles, the only assumption I could justifiably make was that my assumptions were most likely to be wrong. I had assumed the man with the axe and the billhook, running after me as I climbed out of Zakataly, was intent on mischief. He wasn't. He was a woodcutter hurrying back to the forest after an overly long lunch.
I had assumed that the dilapidated aircraft bound for Tbilisi, with its bald landing tires and frayed seat belts, was on fire when I was immersed in a white vapor soon after takeoff. But it was a discharge from the cooling system. Now this Azerbaijani with the nail clippers.
Perhaps it was time to have a rethink. I was still 250 miles away from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Should I stop my "worst scenario" presumptuousness and take the world at face value for a while?
Idecided to give it a try. I waved to the cattle herders bringing their stock off the hills before the winter snows, approached police checkpoints with an outstretched hand, and smiled at everyone. The response was dramatic. Lorry drivers sent wailing greetings on their klaxons as they passed; street traders pulled me in for "chai"; and total strangers offered me shelter.
Finally, I reached Baku, and as if to draw a line under the whole assumption thing, I found myself, briefly, on the other side of the fence.
The British Embassy in Azerbaijan had kindly arranged an interview for me with the Head of International Relations. I arrived at Government House at the due time and presented myself at the reception desk of the Ministry of Culture. A lady of large and forbidding appearance, the archetypal Communist aspirant bureaucrat, looked at me imperiously.
"Da?" she said.
"Mr. Aliev Radjab, please." I smiled.
She made no effort to hide her disdain. She looked at my unshaven face, at the shirt and trousers that I had slept and lived in for the past two months, at my torn and dirtied sneakers. And I know what happened. She assumed I could not possibly be the man sent by the British Embassy to interview the Head of International Relations....
But then, of course, her assumption was wrong.