While visiting the village of Kish just outside of Shaki, the Azerbaijani long weekend getaway of choice, we struck up a conversation with a newlywed couple – a young dentist and his wife – as they gave us a ride back into town.
“The situation with doctors and dentists is really bad in Azerbaijan. My salary as a dentist is only $30 per month.”
“How could you afford a car like this on $30 per month?” Audrey asked, as she sank back into the deep plush seat of his Mercedes sedan.
“Private patients,” he offered with a smile.
Another example of what we came to call “Caucasus Math,” where appearances, stories, quoted salaries and the cost of living simply didn't add up. In this case, private clients heavily subsidize an “official” job so that a dentist with a salary of $30 can afford a big (albeit used) Mercedes and take a one-month honeymoon with his new wife.
From what we can tell, this is normal and it's the way things work in the Caucasus. This is their new economy.
Easier to Drive a Taxi
Our taxi driver, Samir, told us his story on the way from Sheki to Ismaili. He was a calm, friendly English-speaking driver – a profile you would be hard-pressed to find in taxi drivers in this part of the world.
As Samir tells it, when the Soviet Union collapsed, he used the opportunity of free movement to work in Yemen as a doctor. A few years later he transferred to St. Petersburg. He tried working there for a while, living with his wife and newborn son and sending money home to his parents. Later, his wife and son returned home to Azerbaijan. He continued to work in St. Petersburg, but eventually missed his son too much and decided to return for good.
We asked the obvious question: “If you are a trained doctor, then why are you working as a taxi driver?” Samir smiled. This question exposed our western sensibilities. For us, it didn't quite make sense that a doctor would choose to be a taxi driver.
Samir explained that in Azerbaijan it was more lucrative and less stressful to work as a taxi driver than to juggle working for the state as a doctor while finding enough private patients to make ends meet. Another crack in another public health system and proof that not having enough money to pay doctors on the side in Azerbaijan can be dangerous for your health.
Most people go to Shaki, one of Azerbaijan's top tourist sites, to visit the 18th century Khan's palace and stay at the Caravanserai Hotel. We did all that, and enjoyed a side trip to Kish and teatime with some grandmas in their rose garden in Shaki. But conversations like this give us insight into how real people live in post-Communist Azerbaijan today as the country’s economy continues to evolve.