'You must not sit so deeply,' she instructed me. 'Your heart must remain above the oil level at all times, lest you risk cardiac arrest.'
I had been sunk up to my chin in the tub of brown liquid as an act of solidarity with a best-nameless correspondent of a well-known television show engaged in making yet another documentary on 'the Great Game,' meaning the struggle for influence in the oil- (and intrigue-) rich Caspian Sea basin of the post-Soviet Union, where Russians, Americans, Brits, Turks and Iranians are all trying to get one leg up over the others, especially in places like the always-confusing Azerbaijan.
In an effort to make the program just a little different from the usual focus on global politics and local corruption, I had convinced the correspondent to perform not so much a 'stand up' as a 'lay down'--that is, he was talking to the camera from a prone position, smack dab in the middle of a tub of hot brown oil. The plan was to get him down to his shorts and in and out of the petroleum bath in a minute or two. But he kept on botching his lines, with the result that he had been wallowing in hot oil for over 15 minutes, while the medically prescribed limit was 12 minutesand the producer was still not satisfied with the take.
God knew what the physiological damage would be: after only five minutes in the adjacent tub, I could already feel my heart palpitating wildly beneath the surface, and a peculiar hot sweat had formed on my forehead, a function that all the rest of my pores were desperately attempting to effect beneath the soupy surface of the oil.
And this was supposed to be good for you?
The Azeris claim that the nafta baths are good for almost everything that could possibly ever be wrong with youmange, scabies, syphillis, psoriasis, arrhythmia of the heart and even infertility (in women).
According to Doctor Alisher Musayev, the chief physician at the Naftalan Sanitarium and Bath Complex, the shabby Soviet-era structure in Central Azerbaijan where we did our shoot, Nafta is a form of petroleum that leaks naturally from the ground and is unique to oil-rich Azerbaijan, a country the ancients used to call 'the land of fire' due to the naturally occurring gas-fed fires around the region. So popular were Azerbaijan's nafta sanitaria in the Soviet era, that the local Ministry of Health constructed half a dozen hotel complexes in three different locations were nafta was found in Azerbaijan. Registrations for guests drawn from across the USSR and East Bloc topped 6,000 per day. Barren couples topped the list; the director's office wall was filled with pictures sent in from gratified customers, along with photos of a surprisingly high number of twin children, conceived at the sanatorium.
But with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the resulting political chaos brought on by the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the nafta spas soon filled up with Azeri refugees--and today, only one hotel unit of the six built at Naftalan functions as a spa at all, and then at what might be described as 'two cylinder' capacity: at the time of our visit, there were only four registered guests in the cavernous complex: a couple from Estonia, a Russian from Kazan and a Baku Jew, all of whom were more than happy to be shelling out $300 for two weeks of room, board, daily nafta baths and a range of other health-enhancing activities, like sunbathing on the roof.
Well, the Azeris might like to tout the benefits of jumping in a bath of hot oil, but before doing our shoot, I thought I might get some information from independent sources. Accordingly, I contacted my pal Ed Lake, the first representative of a certain major American oil company in Azerbaijan and asked him what he thought. Lake gave the entire idea a cold bath, as it were.
"As you know, NAFTA is the North American Free Trade Agreement," he wrote me in jest, and then got right into the technicalities, which I provide here at length just in case there are readers out there who think they have a perfect command of the English language in all its forms. "I suspect that the correct English equivalent for what the Azeri folks are describing is Naphtha. Usually in the E&P business, we stay away from the business of crude oil fractionation, leaving it to the Oil and Chemicals sectors. However, I once negotiated an agreement for managing a stream of "Naphtha" which was being made available from a wet (meaning hydrocarbon liquid rich) gas processing plant. Strictly speaking, Naphtha may be naphthalene or possibly napthacene; both of these are linear fused aromatic hydrocarbons, and are quite volatile (flammable). This Naphtha would have been inconsistent with natural crude oil seepage. Naphtha can also be used generally to refer to the residual liquids in gas processing plants. Essentially, after all of the methane, ethane, butane, and propane is extracted from a rich natural gas stream at a gas plant, a residual liquid remains which is usually a volatile aromatic collection of hydrocarbons and may be referred to as "Naphtha." However, it is doubtful that you were bathing in Naphtha derived from ground seepage, or in Naphtha at all (too volatile), unless it came raining down from a gas well which had blown out but which had not yet caught fire. With respect to medicinal or therapeutic value, my guess is that elevated temperature is therapeutic for some ailments and infections, regardless of how derived. Let me point out that oil does have a different coefficient of thermal conductivity than water, and of course is immiscible with perspiration. Oil is still very much used in the heat treating of steels, aluminum, and exotic alloys because of this property. I wonder though whether the innovative folks in the States have developed their own equivalent for the Azeri oil baths. Have you ever heard of a Mazola Roller Party, also used frequently in female mud wrestling and certain X rated videos (from what I have been told)?"
When I showed the epistle to my Montana movie star neighbor and occasional traveling companion in the Caucasus Margot Kidder (better known as Lois Lane to most of you), she scoffed at Lake's response and said that as a mother, actress and native of the northern Canadian oil-boom town called Yellowknife just beneath the Arctic Circle, she knew more about the benefits of keeping the skin greasy than did her old pal Ed Lake.
"Dear Ed," she wrote back. "Happy to you get your last e-mail, BUT, as all mothers know, petroleum jelly is medicinally miraculous because it heals diaper rash like no other substance on earth. This was discovered when scientists observed that the oil men in Texas and Alberta have really great skin on their hands. I myself use petroleum jelly on my face every night (unless there's a guy around, which is rarely) and can attest to the fact that it is as healing on the face as it is on baby's bums. Hate to have to correct a man I admire as much as you but we girls know the facts. Thank you for being the best host Baku could provide, Love, Margie."
Still not satisfied, I tried to contact a leading dermatologist, whose international adventures included checking out various skin diseases as appear on masterpiece portraits in European museums and who has a hideous skin disease named after him, focodermaalhypoplasia, which is not the sort of thing you want on your elbow. He is also my uncle, Robert Goltz.
"Your nafta reminds me of the coal tar or shale oil we used to use before the days of cortisone for treating not only psoriasis but eczema, but I haven't seen the stuff in use for 50 years," said Bob, adding that using any type of tar for dermatological reasons reminded him "of the use of the arsenic compound arsphenamine, the 'miracle cure' for syphillis discovered by one Paul Ehrlich in the early years of this century, which was phased out in Europe and the United States after the discovery of penicillin, but continued to enjoy wide medical use in China up until a decade ago..."
"What about a simple piece of advice to all seeking relief from psoriasis or hoping to improve chances of impregnation by taking a dip in a vat of hot Azeri oil?" I asked.
"Try not slip when you get out of the tub."
Well, back in the tub, I was either becoming the first male in the world to get pregnant, having an epiphany or merely dyingwhich meant that the correspondent probably was already an oil-boiled cadaver. Then finally, blissfully, I heard the producer shout "we've got a wrap!"
I peered around the corner of my cubicle to watch the show's normally cocky
Goltz is the author of Azerbaijan Diary:
A Rogue Reporter's Adventures in an Oil-rich, War-torn,
Post-Soviet Republic, M.E. Sharpe 1998/99. He is currently
working on a book on ethnic strife in the Caucasus for St.