So This Is What Hell Is Like

In the last post, the one that took me a month to get the technical difficulties worked out with that video, in that last post I was caught up in the memory of that wonderful event, the 2004 Annual AmCham Independence Day Picnic in Baku, Azerbaijan.

We had beautiful weather, hundreds and hundreds of families enjoying the day, a great band and marvelous food. Everything a Picnic should be.

Ah, yes… that’s when it hit me. I do remember why that was so emotional for me!

Not only was it a great day but it carried with it all the emotional vindication for what I hesitantly refer to as, ‘Picnic Hell-2003’.

Let me set the stage for what could not be more opposite events.

After the events of 9/11, our 2002 Picnic carried some jitters. We were in a Muslim country, just over the border from Iran, and still at war with Armenia- though a cessation in the active hostilities was holding for the most part. Russia was always thought to be waiting for any opportunity to pounce. So a good deal to be nervous about. Being an expat in that situation meant always keeping your senses alert to any unusual ripples in the currents of the days.

US Embassy Baku Marine Honor Guard

US Embassy Baku Marine Honor Guard

The 2002 Picnic was scaled back a bit and the Embassy Marine detachment was on hand. But by 2003, things had settled into the “new normal”- security checks at the Embassy. No cell phones, purses or backpacks allowed in for any meetings, no matter who you were. (I remember having to borrow a pen to take notes for a meeting because my purse was at the gate… sigh.)

So by all accounts there was a lot riding on the 2003 Picnic, giving families and friends a good, old-fashioned, optimistic celebration.

What we got was altogether different. Though not for the reasons one might assume given the circumstances.

In the early days, we grilled hamburgers and hot dogs for about 75 people with little problem. Long lines sure, but nothing out of the ordinary. Now, though, we were having 500 or more people and it was getting to be too much.

I contacted our favorite restaurant owner and ask if he had staff that could do the cooking for us. No problem, he said. “You won’t have to do a thing”. Hmmmm, where have I heard that before?? Lesson #1: If the hair on the back of your neck stands up, don’t ignore it.

I remembered hearing that exact same line from Dave, our Louisiana friend that I told you about in Life begins at 40… or so they say!, but, to be honest, with an English/Turkish accent, it sounded like butter, and I walked away in total confidence.

We agreed that his regular staff would provide the food, do the cooking, and provide a cleanup crew to haul away the refuse, and return the International School’s soccer field to its pristine condition (we would, after all, like to be allowed back!)

My first ripple of something being amiss, came when the food servers arrived with beverages in 2 litre bottles with these Dixie cups… oh, this is so not happening! Not for 500 hundred people. Our usual Coca-Cola distributor had problems that afternoon with their dispensers and this was their back-up plan.

Next the beer arrived. In cartons, not on ice. Well, some ice was coming, they said… Never did it cross my mind that cold beer was not an issue for the British. How could I have missed that (critical) cultural cue?

I decided to check on the cooks, and suddenly wished I could be anywhere else. I found the cooks setting up an outdoor hibachi… seriously, a hibachi. Putting 6 patties at a time in a basket. That was bad, but when they turned the basket 2 patties fell out on the ground. I turned away before I could see what happened next. I was crying, hopelessly, as friends and families began streaming through the gate.

We ran out of food, drinks were warm when you could get one. It was a Class A disaster.

I saw a friend, a Pakistani businessman who owned a small expat store. He noticed my tears and asked what he could do. He handed me his cellphone that was connecting to his store, “Tell them what you need, in my name, it is yours.” Within 30 minutes they arrived with the most glorious cases of cold Coca Cola, Sprite, Orange Fanta, and beer- lots and lots of chilled beer!

Next I called our local McDonald’s- a newly opened operation, and whose franchise owner was an AmCham Board Member.

They sent out what must have been a week’s supply of hamburger patties and buns. One of the Marines went to their quarters nearby and brought their 1/2 barrel barbecue, and that soon got things back on track.

I was breathing again.

By the time of the raffle and the games, the day had been salvaged more or less. Folks could grumble about other things, like how come one particular expat won almost every major prize? My head ached and my eyes hurt. My pride was wounded beyond repair- and in a small town stories spread fast. That would sting.

After everyone left, around 10:30pm, I looked over the field in the flood lights- it was pure carnage. I was so glad a cleanup crew was scheduled to be there before 8:00am the next morning. One of our Embassy friends, Foreign Commercial Officer Michael Lally, gave me a big hug and said, “Leave all this tonight. We’ll go to the Wharf and get a stiff drink.” Truthfully, that was the best idea of the day!

Now, as a Texan, I generally drink Iced Tea. That night, however, Micheal ordered me something that I later learned was a Long Island Iced Tea, followed by another, as I cried woefully. The more I drank, the more I sobbed. Until I reached that point, down in my soul, when I got mad. Somehow I knew that tomorrow was the last chance for redemption, and given the unreliable performances today, I had best get my act together and pull this thing out.

Somehow, I got up at the crack of dawn and went out on the street to where my usual taxi drivers always waited for customers.

I asked who wanted to make $50 (a month’s salary for some governmnent workers). No one asked, doing what? They all just stepped up and asked what I needed. These guys were always there for me, and this was no exception. I asked Arif to find me 4 men- he looked at me a little quizzically- until I explained, they were not for me exactly. (Well, maybe, they could be… later? Uh, no.)

Nadir was off to find me a truck- something like a dump truck. The rest were going with me up the hill to the school to make sure we got this place clean before anyone could say a word.

We met at Fizuli Circle at 7:00am and made our way out to the International School where we expected to meet the cleaning crew that had been contracted for the job.

About a half hour late, a car pulled up. Puzzled, I walked over and watched. Out stepped the driver followed by 4 girls. In dresses. And heels. Hair and makeup done to the nines. I asked about their cleaning equipment, not believing what I was seeing- oh so thankful I had my guys.

They pulled out 4 small brooms, 4 pails and some shopping bags. Really, I’m not kidding.

I was incredulous- livid beyond belief but so beyond worrying about it. I had a crew with garbage bags and incentive to work.

The girls went into the building to clean the restrooms- which after 500 people over the day, really needed help.

The guys and I walked the field back and forth for the next 5 hours, picking up cups, plates, bottles, cans, bottle caps, pull tabs, straws, plastic utensils like knives and forks- and any other items that could cause injury later in a soccer game. The sun was intense and we were exhausted when we got done, but a full dump truck later we were satisfied that no one would be unhappy or hurt because of our picnic.

I paid the guys and let them go to the dump. I went to my office to finalize the accounting- to see how bad it was. I had to wrap all this up as the next day I was leaving for California to attend my 30 year high school reunion.

On the plane I had a lot to think about, and be thankful for. I would escape the worst comments, the paper had a nice Thank You advert for our wonderful sponsors, my staff had the accounting report, which thanks to our friends’ donated relief supplies, turned out to be ok in the end. But lots of lessons learned.

The most important of which, at that moment, was “Wear Sunscreen”. My sunburn was so bad that I had to cut the labels out of my clothes, or go naked on the plane… Lesson Learned!

Planning for the next Picnic, 2004, would start as soon as I got back. We would hold a debrief and get started on what would turn out to be the best event we ever had to that point. (Check out the fun video in Don’t Ask Me Why….)

For the moment, though, my biggest problem was just hoping I wouldn’t be peeling too badly for my reunion night… Ewww, a great way to make memories, for sure!

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