What does a woman from Austria, the Eurovision song contest & mountain biking have in common? Azerbaijan of course. Juliane Wisata from Rocky Trail Entertainment recently returned from lecturing in Azerbaijan, and she shared with Travel Play Live some insights from her adventures.
I grew up in a little village in Austria and since I can remember I dreamt of travelling the world. It was this yearning to get to know different countries and cultures that led me to study an internationally-oriented business and economics course at University near Vienna. What a melting pot of like-minded souls from all over Austria and the world! More than a third of my time at uni I worked and studied abroad – one semester as an exchange student in Moscow and two practical training semesters at a time in Sydney and New York City. I loved diving into new neighbourhoods, immersing myself in the countries’ cultures and meeting so many wonderful fellow travellers along the way.
After graduating in 2003, I was offered a job and a visa to live in Sydney and my now husband and I jumped at the opportunity. We quickly slipped into a circle of mountain biking friends and caught the racing bug. Fast forward that by 12 years and we now run our own events management business, specialised in mountain bike races. We haven’t stopped travelling and our business takes us to some of the most popular mountain bike destinations in Australia. Two months a year we spend in Europe working at an Austrian stage race in the Alps, and my husband and I also teach an entrepreneurship course at our “old” university there.
Our “lively lecture” reputation had the university Dean send us on a foreign teaching mission to Azerbaijan. I have to admit that even though I had been envious when my husband got to go first and came back with such vivid recounts of the city of Baku and the partner university, I was quite nervous stepping onto the plane by myself. I had recently found out that I was pregnant and that added to the excitement – my little bean and I were on our first overseas trip together!
So what were my expectations of Azerbaijan? I imagined it a barren, brown country and Baku a bit like Moscow. After all, Azerbaijan used to be part of Russia on and off for nearly two centuries and most recently used to be a Soviet country for over seventy years until 1991. I had some news reports in my head from when I was a kid, from war in the Karabakh region, plus being European, of course colourful images of the Eurovision Song contest in Baku in 2012.
To prepare for the trip I had read up on the history and my head was still spinning from the cruel historic events I had read about; Christians were driven out by Arabs in the seventh and eight century, then there was a strong Turkish influence with many different Shah dynasties ruling the country – many historical buildings in Baku stem from that time period around the 15th century. The start of the 18th century brought wars into Azerbaijan, one after the other. The port of Baku was in great demand and the Russians and Iranians fought hotly over it, which led to a split of the country and its people. I think much of the Euro-Asian mix of culture and architecture that can be seen in the Capital Baku nowadays resulted from it.
Since rich oil reserves were discovered in Azerbaijan, the country has inevitably been involved in the “new Great Game” of our times. When landing in Baku I right away noticed the huge oil tankers lined up in the harbour. I was picked up by a driver, who didn’t speak English and who sped across the wide highways through the desert towards a very modern skyline. As we got closer to the city centre I was fascinated by the many sandstone buildings with very distinct Persian architecture and the modern tall and sleek glass facades of buildings that towered over them.
It was a warm day and I had the afternoon off so I took a walk along the Esplanade along the Caspian Sea shores and was instantly drawn into the hustling and bustling of it all. As it was a public holiday it was packed with people – I noticed a lot of families, couples holding hands, beautifully dressed women in spectacularly high heels and sparkling jewellery, kids zooming around in the parks – not the conservative Baku I had imagined. It’s an exciting city – the fact that the country’s alphabet changed twice in the twentieth century alone says a lot about the contemporary Azeri identity – Iranian, Turkish and Russian. I noticed that people still spoke Russian in the streets and understood my very rusty Russian, but most young people conversed in Azeri.
Stepping into the classroom I was welcomed by a flood of Russian and Azeri words that the lively students were conversing in. They were very intrigued by the concept of “Entrepreneurship”. I was told that founding and running a business was impossible, certainly as a young person you couldn’t just start off from scratch, let alone as a woman. Well, I had done my homework and had researched the political and economic system of Azerbaijan and also met with representatives of an international consulting firm in Baku. “Don’t let them tell you it’s impossible, if people are willing to help shape the new Azerbaijan there are systems in place now, everything is possible”, the Head of the Entrepreneurship division assured me, adding that one of the major priorities for government was the development of tourism to step out of the oil industry’s shadow one day.
Almost all of the 25 students were young women between 18 and 20 years old. These days an Azeri woman is still expected to be an exemplary wife and mother, even if they have a full-time job outside the home. Most women work and the students I met had extraordinary ambitions and had a very modern attitude. Even though most of them were politely surprised, doing the math, when I told them that I had lived in Australia for 12 years and was married, but didn’t have any children yet. “In Azerbaijan a married couple is not asked if they are happy, they are asked how many children they have – children are very important and honoured in our culture”, one of my students told me.
Over the next six days I worked with them on a very practical approach, helping them research their options in their own country. Even though, none of them had ever ridden a mountain bike and all of them had grown up in the city, it was fascinating to see the change in attitude towards the outdoor adventure topic and I was quite proud when the class presented a project of running a mountain biking event in a ski resort, with the aim to revive a quiet summer season.
They sponged up the photos I showed them of our riders and events in Australia and enjoyed working out a real-life scenario, not just crunching numbers and having to listen to theoretical lectures. I’m still in touch with some of the students and they just recently sent me their graduation photos – I’m very honoured that I was part of the group of teachers that helped them get there.
Rocky Trail Entertainment