Saturday, November 12, 2005

Less Filling, Tastes Great!

At least we'd already finished our meal when Jason noticed that his filling had popped out.

It's been a rough trip for my guest. As I mentioned before, no electricity for two days, rain for a solid week, and attempted robbery all rode on the welcome wagon that greeted him here in the Caucasus. Who could be surprised that dental emergencies were next on this barrel-o-chuckles itinerary of his?

We were enjoying tea after a filling Azeri meal in Baku with some local friends and Jason had gone uncharacteristically silent. It was Friday night, pushing 10pm, and what I didn't expect to hear out of his mouth was: "I lost my filling."

He wore, on his face, the look of man who is reconciling the following facts: (1) his filling replaced a root canal and all that remains is the delicate, dangling shell of his original tooth; (2) he has 3 more weeks left before returning to the warm embrace of western medicine; (3) it is late on a Friday night; and (4) he is smack in the middle of the South Caucasus, and in particularly, Azerbaijan, where gold teeth are damn near as plentiful as oil rigs.

I was not at all surprised to hear Gafar's response, as he reached for his mobile phone with one hand and waved off Jason's concerns with the other: "It is no problem, my cousin is a dentist."

I shrugged to Jason, his eyes bulging. "You might want to think about it..."

Gafar continued, ringing his cousin: "Sure, we can go to the clinic right now, if you like. If he is not too drunk to do it, it is no problem."

If you've never seen a human face drained of all living blood, let me tell you, it's really something. And so we lead Jason, already cripplingly afraid of dentists, to confront his fears. Like pushing an acrophobiac out of a plane. The Caucasus is no place for half-measures.

The front entry was locked, and so we entered through the side door, down the back alley where abandoned hoses gurgled dirty water to mix with the grime on the floor. An unattended gas stove bubbled gold in a tin can for waiting teeth. So complete and cliched was the horror set that we started laughing hysterically. By "we," naturally, I mean everybody but Jason, who was ready at any moment to pivot on a dime and bust on out.

A dentist office in the nighttime is an unnatural place, and sinister. No receptionist to chirp greetings, unidentified tea-drinking Azeris slouching in corners, long shadows cast by sharp things. Jason waited uncomfortably in the chair while Gafar confirmed that his cousin, the dentist, wasn't gonzo drunk.

Well, of course it was all fine. After a rough start, in which the dentist started laughing unnervingly at Jason's terror and I attempted some humor in questionable taste ("You know, if they make fillings illegal, everyone is just going to have to resort to these back-alley fillings in Azerbaijan."), things were pretty uneventful. The equipment was modern and clean, the work was well done, and the dentist refused any form of payment.

That's the Caucasus, baby. You may not have the rule of law or stability or working electricity, but if you have a friend with a dentist cousin, you can go from Friday night dinner to new, free filling in under an hour.

I thought things were finally turning okay for Jason's trip, until we all got our election monitoring assignments and I learned that my long-suffering pal was to be sent, alone, without a translator or a ride, to monitor elections on the border with Daghestan. When the three of us who were splitting an apartment in Baku split up for the elections, it was decided that I should hold on to the key. C was going to monitor a location farther away than I, and Jason, well, we didn't really expect Jason to come back ever.


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