Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1994 (2.3)
Pages 16-17, 41

Baku Diary

The Spirit of Conservation
Plastics Bags: A Way of Life

by Susan Cornnell

When I was little, I used to love to collect things - kid stuff - like sea shells, rock samples, and dolls from foreign countries. When I grew older, I collected matches from exclusive restaurants and coins from foreign countries. Now that I'm living in Baku, I collect what they call in Russian-"pah-KETS" - plastic bags. That's right, plastic bags!

You see, they're an essential part of daily life here. One never goes out without them. Here they're washed, re-used, re-cycled, repaired, and even returned when loaned.

When you go to the bazaar, for example, it's extremely rare to be offered bags free with your purchases. Most people bring along their own, neatly folded and tucked away in purse or pocket. Myself, I carry a big woven straw bag to hold all my purchases, along with separate smaller plastic bags for vegetables, Zip-loc bags for eggs, a paper bag for bread (it would melt plastic since it comes steaming hot from the oven).

Simply, there's a total lack of packaging of goods. No boxes, no plastic wrap, no Styrofoam, no egg cartons, and no plastic tubs of butter and very few cans. That's why the plastic bags are so important.

Left: Typical scene in Baku - clothes drying on lines extended from apartments.
Photo: Farid Mammadov.

At the bazaar, newspaper cones are used to "package" everything from vegetables to dried fruits, nuts and beans. Fresh yogurt is sold in recycled tomato paste jars; vinegar, in recycled vodka bottles; and meat has no packaging at all, but simply hangs on a hook.

So plastic bags are constantly in use. You wash them out, hang them up to dry and later sort them according to size and function. You see, bags are not all created equal. The bags with sturdy handles are prized the most since people do so much walking; those with colorful designs (usually foreign) are considered most chic; and the omnipresent "Marlboro bags" are the cheapest.

Left: Newspaper cones used for wrapping eggs. Photo: Cornnell.

When I first came to Azerbaijan, I brought my own collection of bags. My Zip-locs nearly caused a fight in the bazaar when I presented one to a little old lady pickle vendor. And I'll never forget the time when I placed a week's worth of trash in a heavy duty drawstring garbage bag outside my door and a neighbor came by and shyly asked if he might take my garbage to the dumpster, empty the sack and keep the bag for himself. More recently, at the International Caspian Oil and Gas Exhibition this past May, one of the oil companies gave out free canvas bags. Their popularity nearly caused a riot.

The habit of recycling doesn't need to be discovered in Baku, it's part of the cultural mentality to save, re-use, and re-store. Let me give you some examples. There are hundreds of cobblers in the capital city and dozens of tailors although it seems everybody-both male and female-can repair things from zippers to light fixtures.

Careful Use of Paper

It's an unwritten rule: paper is always used on both sides. It's not that there's a paper shortage. There are at least a dozen state stores which seem to have an endless supply of low-quality paper and notebooks which they sell practically free. Nonetheless, students always use the same 5-cent notebooks semester after semester, covering every inch of space on both sides.

As a native speaker of English, I often lend a hand in editing English language radio programs and magazines. Invariably, with every text I edit, the paper has already been used on the other side.
Photocopies are still a rare commodity. When we first got a copier for our office, Lala was amazed upon seeing her first copy. "It's a miracle," she marveled. I've since discovered that instructors can actually write something on a piece of paper, tack it on the wall and students can copy it by hand. Perhaps, it's not so efficient, but it saves electricity and money (not to mention copier machine parts which are still impossible to obtain).

I've even become obsessed with what to do with my chewed gum. A package of Post-it notes lasts me a year. English language newspapers are passed from friend to friend until finally they are used to wrap presents and parcels.

Photo: Bread. Sustenance of Life without any wrapping. Photo: Oleg Litvin.

Water - Everybody's Headache

But let me talk about some of the serious shortages in Baku-critical shortages, such as water. By necessity, water conservation is a major part of life here for almost everyone. Most apartments, even those belonging to the "rich and famous", often experience water shortages. The first question you ask when renting a flat is, "How's the water?" Storage tanks in the ceiling of the bathrooms are the norm if you want to have water on a regular basis. We have one in our flat-it's a three foot square rust-encrusted behemoth with a device for heating gas that's so deadly that I've only managed to get up enough nerve to light it twice during my two years here. That means I take showers at friends' homes or at the public "banya" (bath house).

Water flows only a few hours a day at our place. Of course, wouldn't you know, that rarely happens when we're at home. We still prefer to collect water in our bathtub and not the storage tank. In turn, it becomes our source of water for washing our hands, washing dishes and clothes and for flushing the toilet.

You may wonder how we do the laundry. Well, there are no laundromats in Baku. We've heard rumors that a dry cleaner has opened but we're still looking for it. Possibly, one third of the flats have small washing machines, none have dryers (with the exception of foreigners'). As for ourselves, we have neither. My roommate, Sadagat, uses the water stored in the bathtub and boils her clothes on the stove. Then she hangs them out to dry in the kitchen, on the balcony or clothesline, or on occasion she even lays them out on the grass to dry in the yard.

Electricity is usually available. Apartments are generally heated by forced hot water radiators but since they aren't very effective, many add small electric heaters. So apart from ceiling lights and the TV, there is very little use for electricity. Rare are kitchen appliances such as electric can openers, food processors, and hand mixers. Elaborate home entertainment systems are just now beginning to be sold in the Kommissyons. Personal computers belong to the age of the future for most families. So when the power goes off, you simply light a few candles. This past January when we read about the earthquake in California and the difficulties Los Angelinos had trying to cope without power and water, we felt smug, "No problem for us, we're so used to it."

Despite how prevalent the concepts of recycling and conservation are, when it comes to the state-owned utilities of telephones and gas, Azerbaijanis have a different mentality. Up until just recently, these were virtually free and Azerbaijanis' use was profligate. People still talk on the phone for hours although phone usage for local private service costs about 120 manats per month (US $0.12) which is five times higher than it was a month ago. But international calls are incredibly expensive. At this writing, calls were about $3 per minute to the U.S. (prohibitively expensive considering that a college professor makes less than $10 per month).

Gas is the one utility they pin their hopes on. Even if it barely emits a trace, it works. Summer or winter, it's very usual for people to leave at least one gas burner lit. Sometimes, they let it burn simply because they don't have a match to re-light it. Besides, they never know when someone might stop in for tea so the "chainik" (tea kettle) is always ready for service. When it's cold outside, a metal disk is placed on top of the burner. Supposedly, this helps warm the flat (although, in truth, only the area adjacent to the stove gets warm).

Despite these few areas of indulgence, saving and collecting nearly everything is not just a way of life, it's a hobby. Just check out my roommate's cabinets. She keeps every scrap of paper, every ribbon, every empty jam jar "just in case". I asked her why she was so obsessed with hoarding everything, thinking, perhaps, it was just her peculiar idiosyncrasy. She told me that for many years, there was nothing available from the "outside world" and so people became intrigued with foreign things.

Small things hold great value in this society-an idea often so remote from the mentality of the "disposable" society in which I grew up. Once after a tea party at our flat, I discovered my friends washing the paper plates and refolding the paper napkins. I laughed and tried to explain that those things were disposable-that they were intended only to be used once. But my friends continued to persist, "Why?"

I come from a materially-oriented disposable society where I grew up used to collecting things just to have them. It's not that I needed them or that I even cared about them, it was just part of my culture to possess, consume and then, of course, discard.

A Spirit of Generosity Despite Limited Resources

I've learned a lot from my Azeri friends about conservation and recycling. I've learned how to get the most use out of something as simple as a plastic bag. I've learned to appreciate the things that I have, but more importantly, I've learned to share.

You see, despite a cultural mentality that cautions, "Save it for a rainy day," the Azeris are extremely generous people. They love to share whatever they have, even if it's just a symbol of their friendship. They would never think of visiting someone's home, for example, without taking a gift for the hostess. Even when we visit refugees who have been reduced to living in tents, invariably they offer something-sometimes a handful of candies that they have been saving to honor special guests.

Living in Azerbaijan is teaching me that giving is truly greater than receiving. Even the simple little key ring I bought at Disney World is now a treasured gift-along with the wrapping paper and ribbon in which I presented it. And so it is that living in Azerbaijan is causing me to be selective about my purchases-to really value things before buying them; but then I'm learning to value them even more-by giving them away.

Susan Cornnell is a staff columnist. She has been living in Baku for the past two years.

From Azerbaijan International (2.3) Autumn 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.

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