We cross the Caspian Sea from Baku (Azerbaijan) to Aktau (Kazakhstan) on a cargo vessel. Aboard we meet a group of four Azeris working on a refrigerated goods train. Their cargo is frozen meat from Paraguay and their job is to handle customs procedures and deliver the goods safely to northern Kazakhstan. The nitty-gritty of globalised trade.
We spend a day anchored off the Kazakh coast. Two other ships are waiting to discharge and the sailors say a storm is coming. Much time and nothing to do except watching the weather and hoping that we are allowed to dock before the winds pick up.
The Azeris invite us to their cabin and feed us fresh pomegranates, snacks, and vodka. “Isn’t there enough meat in Kazakhstan?”, I ask. There is plenty, “but they eat a lot”, they reply. And the growing middle class in the oil-rich country has developed a taste for fine steaks and tenderloin, they add.
The four men are in their 50s and led different lives before becoming train attendants. One was running his own shop in Moscow, which paid for his two children’s university eduction. It was raided and seized, like so many other immigrant businesses. The other one was the director of a fish factory and responsible for the protection of fish in the Caspian Sea during Soviet times. Now they earn about 240 USD a month. Not enough for anything in expensive Azerbaijan. Soviet times were better, fairer, more affluent, they all agree.