I have thee Internet in my house!

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And a happy 1 year anniversary to me!

That’s right, a whole year has passed since I arrived in Jalilabad with my whole life in tow, not having a clue what I had gotten myself into. And now, here we are again. Sam and I have welcomed one new sitemate into the very high profile club of the Jalilabad-asses, and are readying ourselves for another winter without central heating.

I have finally figured out my living situation. Thank the Gods, because at this point in my service, I swear (allah haqqı), if I had to move out it would have been back to America. I get to stay at my apartment for a slight increase in rent and sleep on the floor in the extra bedroom because the outlets in the bedroom don’t work (gotta have that electric heater). Olsun (so be it.)

Although the past year has had its ups and downs, I have learned how to deal pretty well. While I was in America I was asked “how has your perspective on life changed?” And I realized that I couldn’t even recognize all the changes that had happened because they are still taking place. The longer I am in Azerbaijan, the harder it is for me to see the dissonance between this culture and that of my home-land, because this place has now become a home to me. Who’s to say hitch-hiking isn’t a standard means of transportation?

So now that I am partially blind to all that is strange in this country, here are answers to the most common questions I was asked while in America (that made me realize what I’m doing is, in fact, out of the norm):

So like, what do you do exactly?

This is a good question. Even I am not really sure. I am a TEFL volunteer (Peace Corps Azerbaijan also has Youth Development and Community & Economic Development PCVs), and as such my primary role is working with Azerbaijani English teachers at a secondary school (we are all assigned 1 school as our primary organization) with the goals of increasing their use of interactive teaching methods in the classroom. As a post-soviet country, Azerbaijan’s education system is stuck in the days of rote memorization and translating texts. It doesn’t take long for us TEFL volunteers to realize how much we under-appreciated our American education. While being the bringer of learning games sounds like fun, it is a challenge to get Azeri teachers on board and sustainably using these activities themselves.

My secondary work includes running all sorts of clubs (mostly of the English variety), and these change with the seasons. PCVs do all sorts of different things depending on their interests; we have a national softball league, frisbee league, film festival, creative writing contest, as well as huge leadership camps in the summer (and more!). I am currently trying to get an English/Media course started in which I will lead discussions about media/journalism/democracy, and hopefully have a chance to teach blogging as well.

Can you speak Azerbaijani?

Yes! PCVs all go through 10 weeks of intense language study during Pre-Service Training which accounts for 2.5 months before we could be officially sworn in as volunteers. While we all must attain a certain level of language proficiency, PCVs language skills tend to diverge after getting to site. Factors that affect fluency include: work (do your work counterparts speak English or Azerbaijani?), host family (is your host family interested and supportive in your Azeri conversing?), what you do in your free time (do you spend time kicking back, or put time into your community and making local friends?), and how much effort your put into learning (do you have a tutor or study?).

I would rate my Azerbaijani skills as pretty average. I did fine in PST, but once I got to site, my host family didn’t have the patience to talk to me and I never got a tutor. I speak English with my counterpart, but Azeri with my students (this needs to change), and can speak conversational Azeri with just about every other person I interact with (although old guys tend to mumble…). I can use intermediate grammar and tenses easily. Most of my speaking problems arise when I don’t know a certain word.

How is living in an Islamic country?

Azerbaijan’s population is over 90% Muslim (and of those, predominantly Shi’ite Muslim). Azerbaijan is also the first Islamic country to be a democracy. While they still have huge stretches to make in that department, I think they are doing a good job of keeping things secular. The soviet period has rubbed a lot of Russian culture into the everyday grain of society, and some of these traditions clash with conservative Islamic values. The result resembles a lot of America: a lot of people identify as Christian but don’t necessarily follow all of the hard and fast rules.

Most everyone identifies as Muslim, and maybe practices their religion more intensely during a period of their life, but while religion is widespread and essential to the national character, it is not all-defining. Azerbaijanis get along with and have no qualms with other religions. They assume I am Christian and will readily ask questions and make comparisons to each’s different traditions (FYI: they are both Abrahamic religions, as is Judaism, which means these 3 religions are very closely related, relative to the whole wide spectrum of all that is spirituality). What they don’t understand as easily is Atheism, so when I explain this I usually compare it to Buddhism, or I just don’t get into my religious beliefs unless I know a person well enough (random people will definitely ask though).

What do Azerbaijanis eat?

I posted a blog some time ago that spotlighted a few of the meals I’ve encountered here. Constants in Azeri cuisine are: bread, oil/butter, and tea. They consume approximately 8+ cups of tea per day. Tea is “çay” in Azerbaijani, pronounced “chai,” but not to be confused with the spiced lattes from Starbucks. They brew a concentrated teapot of loose leaf black tea, and then maintain a supply of boiling water throughout the day so that they can pour never ending cups of tea and ensure they get their daily fix. They alway drink it black, most of the time with loads of sugar, oftentimes with sweets on the side, and sometimes with lemon.

Bread is integral to the Azerbaijani diet. It is present at every meal. If you don’t eat any, Azeris take note and ask why. Not eating bread is equivalent to not eating in their minds. They’ll eat it alone, or with cheese or jam (not with butter so much though), hot from a tendir oven (heaven-sent) or fresh from the market. They’ll eat at the side of a meal and use it as a piece of silverware, or ripped up in their soup, sopping up oil or…you get the idea. It is also important to observe proper bread etiquette. Old bread should never be thrown away or be found on the ground. It should be placed on a windowsil or ledge where a bird or something can get it (they aren’t really that serious about this, I mean my host fam would feed old bread to chickens on the ground no worries). I have heard that all of this bread fetishism may have come from the days when bread was all sustaining, and the only thing that kept the country alive. That and tea.

And finally, oil. Show an Azeri the food pyramid, and they will not believe you when you tell them oil belongs in the top triangle, to be consumed as sparingly as possible. It is widespread belief that oil (and I’m not talking about olive oil) adds important nutritional value to the Azerbaijani diet, and therefor it saturates most every “national dish” that this country claims. (I’ve learned that pretty much every meal made here is an “Azerbaijani national dish” – they don’t understand experimental cooking).

 

These are the questions that come to mind, but please shoot me a message if you’d like answers to any others!

Home Bitter Sweet Home

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“FiiiONA….FiiiiOONA…ay FiiiOna…”  accompanied the sound of the bars over my bedroom window rattling me awake at 11:30AM my first morning back in Jalilabad. It was my landlady, here to announce that the dream was over, I was definitely not in Kansas anymore. And she wanted me to let her in so she could show yet another potential buyer the apartment.

I’m very confused about the stability of my living situation. They’re insisting I start paying an extra 20 manat per month while they look for someone to buy the apartment. They’re telling me of course I can stay, why would I worry about that? But of course, if they sell it, I might have to move…right away. And at the same time taking tour after tour of Azerbaijani customers through my living quarters and into the super secret locked extra room where they are selling hordes of old tea cup models and a couch that I could have used these last 6 months.

Returning to Azerbaijan hasn’t been quite the comfort that I was craving while back in the US, overwhelmed by the abundance of, well, everything. When every meal is an opportunity for greatness, and every minute ticking past a chance to do something I couldn’t otherwise, I found myself wishing that all of these opportunities would just disappear. Serve me up a bowl of lentil soup and tell me there aren’t any other options, damnit. You know that metaphor about the cup being half full or half empty? Well I have reason to believe it’s not about what’s in the cup, the cup is just too big!

But now, here I am, sitting in my Jalilabad apartment with nothing to do. And I’m bored! Bored like I was before. And my cup of tea can’t be refilled enough times.

The Pursuit of Internet

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My prospective arrival date into the land of internet abyss has changed several times.

Initially, I was waiting until I moved into a place of my own at which I would have to pay the internet set-up fee only once and then forever more browse cat videos in peace and comfort of my bedroom.

Then, I didn’t move out until May and didn’t have time to think about internet until June what with my mom visiting and school ending and all. But then it was summer, and I was planning on traveling and helping out with camps around the country and I not spending too much time at home. So why would I pay for internet that I wasn’t going to use?

So summer ended and school started halfway through September. This was when I told you all I would be making my big online debut. But it’s already mid-October and I am either spending a lot of time on ‘invisible’ or things have gone terribly wrong. As I’m living in Azerbaijan, you can probably guess what happened.

My telephone line stopped working! And I swear to Allah, not even a month prior it was working just fine (I mean minus the fact that nobody could hear me speaking into the receiver). So I was advised by my landlady to go to the post office where I was advised to go to the telephone place to pay my bill, but then the telephone place wanted 100 manat in order to “re-start” the phone line. Um, excuse me? Let me ask my Azerbaijani friend to translate.

Then, in the midst of looking for host families for the incoming group of volunteers, and me wondering where we were all going to sit when they arrived (I have no couch), Sam’s host dad turned up a whole not of nothing, but he did come across a free apartment, host-fam-sız, and I was like, um, hello! So Peace Corps came and looked and approved but then we found out that they weren’t going to be giving one of the rooms and that it would cost 200 manat not to “re-start” a phone line, but to install one altogether. This changed things.

Then, my current landlady decided that she wanted to sell my apartment, so I now have no choice about whether or not I want to move – it’s just a matter of when and where. In the meantime, the place I had looked at was claimed by someone else. While I have no idea where/if I’m going to have a place to live, I decided I probably shouldn’t spend money on installing phone lines and/or internet. (The past few weeks have been spent strolling around neighborhoods asking unsuspecting xanıms (ladies) if they’re familiar with any  boş yər (free space) in the area).

So, even though I’ve been all ready to go with my wi-fi router since July, my instability in my accommodation future and impatience with the unplugged life (I haven’t had my own internet for a year, I’ve earned this!), I’ve had to resort to plan B: buying an “internet data card.” This is a wireless port that plugs into your USB drive and provides internet access to your computer, quite like the way your phone uses internet. I don’t know why I didn’t look into this sooner!

Last Monday, it was the beginning of the week and I was all pumped and ready to get this internet problem solved forever. I hiked over to the store to meet Sam who I had recruited to help me translate any weird contract jargon, only to find out that I couldn’t get one without my Azerbaijani ID which I had left at home. Shit.

Oh well, this could be resolved easily enough at least.  So I went back on Tuesday with not only my Azerbaijani ID, but with my Peace Corps passport – Azerbaijani visa and all. Since my Azerbaijani ID was expired the woman asked to see my passport. She looked and nodded and said, “that’s nice but we are out of internet data cards. We will have more on Thursday.”

I’m slightly frustrated at this point, but maybe they weren’t out of them yet when I was there on Monday. So I let Wednesday pass, and came back on Thursday. “We don’t have any. They haven’t come yet.” If there was a chance that they weren’t going to be here yet on Thursday, why did you tell me Thursday? This time, she took my phone number and told me she would call when they arrived. Great why couldn’t we have done this the first time?

Now it’s Friday. I got a call from Azercell at 12:30 saying the internet cards had arrived – finally! So I marched over to the store, Azerbaijani ID and passport in tow, ready to finally claim one of these in-demand keys to the internet. She explains that I will only have to py 5 manat for half of this month and then 10 manat per month after that. She looks at my ID, it’s expired. Her co-worker looks at my ID, and my passport. “We can’t give an internet data card to you because your Azerbaijani ID is expired.” Are you kidding me? You knew this on Tuesday. You looked at my passport because of this. He calls Azercell headquarters to ask.

Nope, still no internet.

Peace Corps Porn

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Travel writing as art in the digital world: The New Informal Destination Guide

So, is the representation of my Peace Corps experience refined and marketed?

Before the internet, access to amateur production by the masses was not possible. Geniuses were the likes of Andy Warhol and JD Salinger who put frames around the every day. But they were professionals.  Now, anyone can do it. And so the meaning has changed.

Professionals can market their work based on the credibility that is earned from years of reputation building. Building the presumption that their work is meticulous and planned. An act of genius.

But everything is marketed, not just travel.  Life is marketed. Consciously or unconsciously, it’s not always clear, but we make decisions based on the kinds of experiences we want to have. For me, that quintessential life experience has included things like: going to a big University, backpacking Europe, and joining the Peace Corps. We may seek out these experiences, but ultimately, life is whatever you make it. Its meaning is contextual.

With amateurs new ability to act as professionals, we can each take the job-title of life experience marketer.  Putting our unique experiences on the map, making them meaningful through sharing.  But amateurs do not have years of experience to point to if their credibility is questioned, so they must use other marketing strategies.  The “porn” tactic has become one of them.

There is a common perception of what the Peace Corps Experience looks like before you arrive in your host country.  You will go save the world by building houses and playing soccer with barefoot kids in a rural African village. (Lucky for me, I didn’t think this whole Peace Corps thing through so I had no picture of what I’d be doing). Then you arrive in Azerbaijan.

I’m one year into my service, and I’m not still quite sure what I’m doing here. I don’t live in a straw hut – not even in a village. I’m not building houses. I rarely play soccer, but I sometimes play frisbee with kids. I guess I teach English – that’s totally Peace Corps, right?

You start a blog to share your experiences with those back home and capitalize on Peace Corps Goal number 3: to share more about the world with Americans.  But the people back home are reading through the lens of their preconceived notions of what Peace Corps is. So you have to write in terms that they will easily digest working under this paradigm.

When something “typical Peace Corps” happens here, like playing soccer with the village kids…or taking a bucket bath, volunteers joke about it saying “OMG this is so Peace Corps right now!” and those experiences translate into blogging gold.

The truth is, the majority of my time here is spent being bored, wondering if what I’m doing is worthwhile and whether I should still be here. To relieve boredom and feelings of pointlessness, I put my time into planning and executing a cool project. Then it fails. This turns into frustration and again questioning how worthwhile my being here is. But relaying all of this doesn’t provide for a very orgasmic reading experience.

So how do I share my experiences when they don’t fit into the pre-conceived notion of what Peace Corps service should be?

I’ve got a responsibility to Peace Corps and my host country to represent their culture and my experience in a non-judgmental way. My time here will turn me into a sort of ambassador for Azerbaijan when I return home. So is what I write really a part of a strategic communication campaign to market Azerbaijani culture to Americans?

I don’t want to have to market my experiences for them to be heard or understood, but maybe sharing and marketing can’t be completely independent concepts. If I want to share my experiences, no matter how I encode them, decoding is out of my hands.

Ask any volunteer, and they will tell you that there is no one way to sum up the “Peace Corps Experience” because everyone’s service is so different. I’m still learning how to judge my own service based on the feedback I get from my community about what I‘ve been able to do rather than on thoughts of what I should be doing based on expectations. However, by sharing my unique experiences I hope to make whatever-it-is-I’m-doing-here into a brand of porn all its own, and hopefully, to help reshape the image of what the “Peace Corps Experience” is altogether.

Summer Wrap Up

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Hayy y’all, I just got back from a sunsoaked adventure in Eastern Europe with only a couple scratches, a sore throat, and a mild case of ringworm (apparently this is not actually a worm but a fungal infection).  Knowing me, I probably caught it from a cat.  My party of 4 spent time in varying degrees of comfort on planes, trains, busses and boats to make it to 3 countries: Hungary, Croatia, and Montenegro. (Most beautiful place I’ve ever been: Kotor, Montenegro). We took plenty of pictures, but before I can post them I’ve got to solve yet another computer-related problem. Assuming that resolves itself smoothly, my apartment is internet bound this September, so I’ll be available for skype dates whenever. And for the real deal, I’ll be coming home to Minnesota for 2 weeks early November – mark your calendars!

Jalilabad is changing in a lot of ways this year. A brand new Olympic Center (sports complex) just sprouted up over night about a month ago which means I’ve been fantasizing about creating a more legit sports club, not to mention getting our frisbee team off the ground.  Speaking of, our Ultimate Frisbee PCPP grant closes in about 2 weeks, so if you’ve got an extra 5 bucks to spare, it would really help get our first season rolling and hopefully eventually help turn this project into something sustainable for Azerbaijani youth. (Oh, and after submit your name to AzerUltimateFrisbeeLeague@gmail.com for a chance to win a sweet AZ/US frisbee!) We also found out not too long ago that Jalilabad is going to be getting new volunteers from the incoming AZ10 group this December. This will be great, because we’ll be able to collaborate on projects and reach more students to plan inter-school clubs and activities!

I’ve been gearing up for the new school year by trying to organize a better grading system with my counterpart (like actually taking unit tests and getting participation points…the stuff we take for granted in the US). I’m also hoping to start a regular club with students from the teacher’s institute in Jalilabad (college for students studying to be Geography, Azerbaijani, and History teachers) that my counterpart also teaches at, and from there I’m hoping to start a club with a media and journalism focus. I’ve been doing a lot of nitpicking over the curriculum of such a course, but there’s no saying whether it will ever take off or not. If not, I’m also planning on making more frequent trips to a bigger city south of my site, Lankaran, to help with more projects – so hopefully I’ll be able to satisfy that ambition one way or another.

As great as it would be to eventually teach blogging, in the meantime, I’m still co-editing The AZLander (latest issue came out this August!) and trying to improve the functionality of that PCAZ publication wherever possible. I’ve recently revamped the blog and was working on some new graphics for the pdf verison before my computer went kaput – we’ll see if they’re saved on my harddrive or not… Ah well, at least I’ve got plenty to keep me busy for the next year of life in Azerbaijan.

Summer in AZ

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Thus far, I’ve spent the majority of my summer days trekking around the various sites of Azerbaijan, helping out with a range of camps, and living out of a backpack.  I thought the change of pace would be refreshing, but it was draining keeping up with new batches of tireless kids week after week.

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After some serious ultimate frisbee

In Jalilabad, even after the hassle of having to get “permission” to run our camp, my own students weren’t bothered enough to show up for even a day of what we had planned, so we improvised with the students who did show and had a pretty chill 4 days of Frisbee and English activities.

I caught the tail end of a typical AZ summer camp in Shemkir. Here we played more Frisbee, softball, had a water balloon toss, did arts and crafts and even had an egg drop! The kids were split into teams who competed for points based on behavior, participation and winning of course!

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Potato stamp stationary making!

Then I was off to Ganja to help with 2 weeks of a “Healthy Mind and Body Camp” planned by one of my PCV friends. Funded by a grant and set up at an orphanage, this camp focused on teaching kids valuable healthy living lessons. We colored food pyramids, played mad dog (foamy teeth brushing contest, that is), and took them to a pool for some good old-fashioned physical activity. It was exhausting trying to keep everyone in line, but when all was said and done, a very worthwhile 2 weeks.

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Mad dog teeth brushing contest

While in Ganja I got to show a few CLS students around who were visiting Ganja for the weekend. We made it up to the high hills of Hajikand, a village outside of Ganja, where we explored the ruins of an old church. I also celebrated the 4th of July with fajitas, watermelon and a kitty pool. And of course there were sparklers and good ol American conversation, including a heated discussion about the intricacies of what makes a vegetable a vegetable and a fruit a fruit.

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Hacikand

After that, I retired to the second “finger” of Azerbaijan, up to visit Balaken and Zaqatala in the cool Caucasus mountains.  Here I kicked back and enjoyed more PCV company and not being at site where it was surely a notable degree warmer.  I spent 2 days in a river and made friends with the police force who was apparently celebrating “Police Day” by sharing kebab and vodka. I also climbed to the top of a foothill near the epicenter of the recent earthquakes where the damage control could be seen from birds eye view.

The Caucasus of Zaqatala

From my friend’s village in Zaqatala, I was off to what many an Azerbaijani believes is the most beautiful region, Gabala, the setting of the Girls Leading Our World Camp that is a Peace Corps world wide project and happens every summer in Azerbaijan. I got to witness the end results of the girls’ transformation into confident young ladies and then take the south bound girls back home. It was awesome to see that my own girls didn’t need me for support as they branched off and made their own new friends at camp, even though their mother’s were questioning letting them go right up until the moment they were on the bus (and were probably worried sick the entire week).

So now I’m back to home-sweet-Jalilabad, and my “site-wife” is in NYC. I thought I wouldn’t like returning here after developing some serious cases of site-envy during my travels, but alas, it is my site that knows me the best (even without Sam here!), and so after all of that, coming home is what turned out to be refreshing.

Home sweet home

I’ve been playing Frisbee with my old host brother and catching up on some much-needed Zs. I told my old host mom/sister about how I didn’t get out of bed until 1:00PM the other day and she said that that was economical – no need for breakfast!  So before I’m off again, for more summer shenanigans and international what-have-yous, I’m dialing it down a notch, saving on breakfast money and waiting for my sitewife’s return to the ‘bad.

Guesting, Big Time: a guest post about my mom’s experience visiting Azerbaijan

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As told by my mother herself:

I never would have thought, one day I’d be visiting my daughter, Fiona, in Azerbaijan. I have to admit I hadn’t even heard of the country until Fiona was invited to spend her Peace Corps experience there.  Eight months into her service I had the opportunity to visit.  Go back 5 months and that’s when I started looking into what it takes to get into the country.  At the time there was a lot of hype on the news about Azerbaijan being used as a staging ground by various countries to monitor activities in its southern neighbor, Iran.  The only way to visit Azerbaijan is to be invited by someone residing in the country, or a corporation doing business there.  All the t’s had to be crossed and I’s dotted while obtaining the necessary visa which felt quite intimidating compared to other visa application experiences.  Oh, and paying $150 for processing the visa, it felt more like a bribe than processing fee.  The only flights I found from Manchester UK, were run by Turkish Airlines, changing in Istanbul.

Fiona prepped me on how to behave and what I should do upon arrival at Heydar Aliyev International airport in Baku, the country’s capital.  We met at the foreign exchange counter.  The currency used is the manat. Prior to leaving Manchester I tried to buy manats at the local bank to no avail.  No big deal, I’ll buy them at Manchester International airport, again no luck.  What’s the deal, no one even knows about the manat?!   After successfully buying their currency on their turf I felt more confident and ready to experience where my daughter is calling home until December, 2013.

Baku

Baku

Have you ever felt intimidated when you can’t speak the local language?  It feels like you’re on a different planet, or listening to Charlie Brown’s mother – bla bla bla bla.  Our roles are reversed as Fiona navigates our journey to her new home, Jalilabad.  I thought I could make my own way there so Fiona wouldn’t have to make a 3 hour journey to Baku just to pick me up.  Oh boy, was I glad she came to the airport – first a taxi (price negotiated before getting in), then a maze of corridors into the subway system for a ten minute train ride.  A bus then took us to the Peace Corps office where I sent e-mails to various people letting them know I made it to Baku.  Then back on the streets winding our way to the bus station for our final destination.  We stood on a corner with a mix of locals for our bus to Jalilabad.  It took a good 45 minutes before we were packed into a dilapidated van (marshrutka).  There was no air conditioning and the temperature was sizzling but I was relieved not to be weighted down like a mule carrying a rucksack front and back for the next 3 hours.  I was impressed at Fiona’s knowledge of the language and ease of speaking Azeri as if it were her native tongue.  It was like she had a built in GPS, navigating the capital as if she grew up there and yet it had only been eight months.

Talk about being on a different planet – the local people look at you as if we are from out of space.  Some of the kids living in Fiona’s neighborhood start shouting ‘hello hello hello!’ as soon as we round the corner.  This is okay for the first couple of times but then it’s plain right obnoxious after that.   Fiona says it feels like being chased by the paparazzi and the novelty soon wears off.

By the time I got out to visit Fiona she had already moved into her own apartment (the first seven months being hosted by local families).  I’ve read her blogs so I had a general idea of what to expect.  We drop our mule packs to the floor and I take a tour of her humble abode – this doesn’t take long since the place is very bare bones basic.  A room she referred to as her office, a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and toilet.  She was very excited by her new digs since she actually has a toilet ‘inside’ the house.  A typical home has an outhouse with a squat toilet and outside bathroom with many times cold water for bathing.  The walls are artfully painted as if wall paper were applied.  The wood floor is also painted in the pattern of a rug.

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Hanging in the bedroom

One thing that hasn’t changed with Fiona – she still adorns her bedroom floor with an array of clothing, drawers open and clothing hanging out, books piled next to the bed along with note books in which she fills with lists from A to Z.  Her clothing strewn across the floor is juxtaposed to her constant writing of lists that gives her order in her chaotic frenzy of life.  She is comfortable in her abstract disarray of belongings.  I actually feel at home, having endured her chaotic life style throughout her high school years in Minnesota.  Don’t believe what you see of the photos Fiona posted earlier – her bedroom was staged to appear like a well organized room – this is NOT so in real life – lol.  (Editor’s note – not true!)

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Where the magic happens

Now, I’m a kitchen fanatic and love ‘kitcheny’ stuff so when I see a rather stark excuse for a kitchen I am taken back how well she creates nourishment with the bare essentials.  One fork, a couple of spoons, a sharp knife, a bowl, couple of pans, a mug and glass and some miscellaneous bits and bobs.  There’s a two ring gas camping stove which I later learned everyone uses over here and a sink creatively surrounded by a flimsy piece of wood and curtain drawn over the front.  The fridge fortunately worked and even had a small freezer to boot.  It is filled with fresh produce from the ‘bazaar’ and bottles of water.

Fiona & I celebrate life with wine (bought in Baku) and paw over the various goodies packed in the mule packs.  She is delighted with her new laptop and listen to itunes until falling into bed exhausted.  The raging thunderstorm just on the other side of the wall is almost soothing as we drift into slumber.

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Tea and sweet jam

Of the 13 days I was in Azerbaijan, many involved ‘guesting’.  It is a common practice here and makes for a big production of entertaining visitors.  We visited host families of Peace Corps volunteers, the counterpart teachers they worked with, the director (principal or head master to the UK & US) of the school and the land lady of the building Fiona lives in.  Azerbaijanis love to eat, drink lots of hot tea and consume many sweets.  The ritual of drinking tea involves eating very sweet fruit compote served in a small saucer and eating chocolates with various fillings wrapped with shiny paper.  The table is then totally cleared and set for the main meal.  It was always the same dishes – plov heaped high on an oval dish, dolma, chicken, sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, fresh herbs and bread.  All of which has been wonderfully described earlier in Fiona’s blog.  The plates for this part of the meal are small and the host loads it high with plov then the rest of the food on top of the heap.  Cucumber, sliced tomatoes and fresh herbs are eaten straight from the serving dish along with bread torn off the round loaf.  The host is watching your plate and will pile more rice on as soon as it’s almost gone.

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Sam, Fiona and a typical table set for guesting

Once you feel quite stuffed the dishes are cleared and fresh fruit, more chocolate, nuts, sweet jam and hot tea are produced.  It is the woman’s job to cut up the fruit.  You can imagine the home bound waddle after such a feast and the thought of ingesting another grain of rice is daunting.  What I found strange while guesting was being left alone often while the meal is being prepared.

On most occasions the food preparation is not started until after you arrive, so the host is popping in and out of the room, out of the room more than in.  All the women would tell me Fiona is like their daughter and she will be well taken care of, quite reassuring to hear I must say!I enjoy going to open markets wherever I go, so was delighted to know there are bazaars (open markets) in every town.  It’s a great place to people watch – like wise, the locals love to watch foreigners too.  Of course it’s a great opportunity to sell to new faces so moving on quickly is the key to getting through the bazaar.  The pricing on items is not shown so it’s a pain to have to keep asking which ultimately starts a bartering battle.  Other sellers are polite and leave you to examine the goods.

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A woman selling beans at the bazaar

Having seen Fiona’s meager array of cooking supplies I had quite the list written down to find.  It was like going on a treasure hunt with many places to look!  This did not amuse Fiona and she easily tired of the game.  We also picked up fresh fruit, veggies, lentils and nuts.  Nuts! There were tons of different nuts, it was great!  And so many choices of pulses in huge sacks, along with different grains.  Oooo and there was lots of dried and fresh herbs – I bought saffron for next to nothing – it was so exciting!  I thought I did really well not to linger at all the sweet stalls – everywhere!  Fortunately my Azeri was next to nothing so it allowed me to pass by with ease – at least for the first couple of times we went to a bazaar.  By the end of my visit I felt comfortable enough to get on the local bus to go without Fiona.  I think my enthusiasm is somewhat higher than her’s when it comes to going to the bazaar, although, she does have 27 months to traipse through them.

I arrived the final week of school so I could see where she works and watch her in action.  The school is relatively new with lots of nice big windows.  You’d never realize it though upon enter the building.  The walls are blank – no art work, no visual learning aids to stimulate the young minds.  No air conditioning, the lights are not on.  The power goes out often.  We were greeted by some of Fiona’s pupils, all very enthusiastic to follow us.  There was no teaching going on.  The pupils are huddled in small groups chatting animatedly.  The teachers are either busy completing end of year rituals or casually gathered discussing summer activities and family.  I’m introduced to the English language teachers.  I answer typical questions as a visitor to their country.  They all want to know if I like their country – this is a common question throughout my visit and I give the polite affirmative answer.  Their English is broken and obvious basic textbook driven, not what I expected from teachers of the language.  Their replies are always followed by ‘ah’ and a blank expression, trying to understand what I said.  Fiona tells me I have to talk slower and enunciate each word precisely.  Get this – they understand me better since I speak English with the English accent.  Fiona speaks with the American accent – go figure!

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With some students in front of the school

Fiona’s little posse move us on to the computer lab to show their completed project for the year.  The computer lab so far has only been used as an entertainment center – online games.  Only two computers have the internet connection.  This 21st century learning tool, taken for granted in the US and Europe has not quite found its nitch in Azerbaijani classrooms.  One of Fiona’s tasks as a PCV is to incorporate the internet as an added tool to the curriculum.  The teachers have taken a computer class to get acquainted to the 21st century fandangle but they are still a long way from accepting it as a useful implement to enhance their knowledge of the outside world.  I see there are multiple tasks and a steep learning curve to understand how a computer has any benefit to the students’ learning.  Not only do they have to have a high proficiency of the English language but the ability to manipulate the computer; learning the intricacies searching the internet; creating a power point to present their findings and apply the knowledge of composing such information grammatically acceptable.  Wow Fiona – hats off to you!  These students are only 13 years old – their aspirations are not even developed yet.  Girls in Azerbaijan are not usually encouraged to look outside their only village, never mind the rest of the world.  The majority will marry just out of high school and understand their purpose in life is to raise a family and tend to domestic chores.  But during the girls’ presentation I do see the passion in Fiona’s posse to look outside the box and are proud of their achievements.

The atmosphere of the school is loud and chaotic.  Students are excited to start the summer holidays and school has already been obliterated from their minds.  Unlike expected decent behavior from US & UK (I make reference to the US & UK since I am a citizen of both countries) students, there is lack of discipline and the day is a free for all.  The students are gearing up for a fun party and end of year celebration two days away.

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The “last bell” party in the school yard

The typical end of school celebration, Azerbaijani style are similar in that the students are excited to start their long summer break.  Differences I noted were quite entertaining.  We arrived at the school late morning on the last day.  All the students are mingling in front of the school and a crowd watching on as seniors make speeches.  They are presented with huge bouquets of artificial flowers and a deluge of soft toys (bears, moneys, rag dolls, other animals of all sorts of sizes and color).  Now I know why there were so many soft toy stalls at the bazaar and very popular with the kids.  A table was set up where the female teachers were seated, watching the students getting into a frenzy, dancing to loud music.  The seniors are going crazy trying to out do each other with fancy quick steps to the beat.  They seem to be drunk on the exhilaration of achieving their final freedom.  Eventually a teacher invites me to sit at the table with the other teachers.  They present me with a bouquet and I feel honored to join them.  The students want Fiona to dance with them but she stubbornly refuses.  So they persuade me to join them – to Fiona’s horror I accept.  I like to dance but there appears to be strict rules how females dance in this country.  An elderly female teacher informed Fiona I needed to sit down, uh oh.  A short while later I don’t know why but a male teacher asked me to dance with him and the students again.  Maybe he was taking the heat off the misunderstanding but I was grateful to be redeemed.

That day was made even longer when the director of the school invited us to guest at her house later.  The ritual of guesting went to 10 PM, yet again filled with enormous quantities of food.  The walk home was welcomed to deplete those extra calories before falling into bed.  For Fiona, she is constantly interpreting the conversation and conveying my reply.  She has versed me on their traditions but there are many new ones to explain as they come up – some I wish she had mentioned earlier.  For instance, how women should dance; how women should act in front of men; men’s beliefs and how they treat women.  It is quite formal and adhered to especially outside the capital.  I didn’t know smiling at men was an indication a woman was offering intimacy. Eek!  Oh boy was I humiliated after several days of being Minnesota nice, grinning widely whenever being introduced to Fiona’s acquaintances.  I wondered why she seemed to pout a lot when around males.  Believe me, I immediately followed her stance.

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The Caspian Sea

One of our ventures took us to Lankaran, a coastal town on the Caspian Sea.  The journey was made in a dilapidated marshrutka shared with about six other people, a bucket of chickens and a large quantity of what turned out to be a couples belongs moving to Lankaran.  Our driver hot wired the van and we were on our way.  Driving in Azerbaijan is quite the experience.  Roads, for the most part not in good shape.  They are narrow with wide verges of dirt.  Slower traffic does not deter the high speeds favored by the majority.  It is a common occurrence to overtake, avoiding oncoming traffic by breath taking closeness.  There is distinctly a lack of obeying road rules.  Seriously, these people must have a death wish without concern for their passengers.  I dealt with it by watching the distant mountains out of the side window while my fellow passengers appear to be oblivious to such a death defying collision.  However, we did live to see the coast.  We were the last to exit the marshrutka.  Our driver started chatting and asking where we wanted to be dropped off.  Once we divulged our plans he took it upon himself to give us a personal tour of the town.  Ali (our now personal guide) even bought us tea and later a picnic of roast chicken, cucumbers and local bread bought from one of the many roadside stalls dotted around town.  We ate at a park shielded from the wind in a cabana on the Caspian Sea shore.  Ali took delight in telling us about his seven children and what they are up to.

ImageWe walked through a large square complete with a statue of a soldier bursting out of rock, small garden areas where a chess school looked onto (the Azerbaijanis share their enthusiasm to play chess from their years of Soviet rule).  Facing this Romanesque structure are blue tinted glass buildings glistening in the sunlight.  Whether it was the heat of the sun kept people indoors, there were very few people evident.  Almost like walking in a ghost town.  Ali bought us all iced milkshakes to beat the heat of the day.  Finally after feigned understanding of where we really wanted to go, he took us to the bazaar which, by then was winding down for the day and mostly closed.  Fiona’s mission while visiting Lankaran was to buy a pair of locally knitted slippers at the bazaar for me to take back to a friend in the US. telle est la vie.  Ali took us to where we needed to catch the last bus back to Jalilabad.  It was a pleasant day touring a town on the west coast of the Caspian Sea, a place I never thought would be on my itinerary.  Our day wouldn’t be complete without the driver failing to stop in Jalilabad.  Fiona was totally absorbed in her book and my eyes were happily watching the scenery fly by when another passenger asked after five miles past Jalilabad why we were still on the bus.  Fortunately we found a taxi to take us back to our destination without much a do.

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“Shalala” – waterfall

Another day was spent visiting another Peace Corps volunteer in a town close by.  Peggy happened to be a Minnesotan also, a few years our senior.  As with all PCV’s she was delighted to entertain their fellow peons.  We arranged for a taxi to take us into the mountains, a totally new experience from the flat dry undulating vistas so far experienced.  It was a wonderful change from the arid land surrounding us.  The scenes were dramatic and lush.  Houses peeped out of the steep forested slopes.  Our final destination in the mountains was a waterfall cascading down a steep long rock wall.  It was fun to view, especially over a cup of tea in a café just across the vista.Winding down the trip, we headed to Baku to explore before my return to England.  We stayed with a couple from the UK & US.  Fiona savored a sandwich at Schlotzsky’s restaurant, a favorite for our family, yum!  We walked our feet off exploring ‘old town’ and new.  We checked out several ‘tourist’ places, not to mention shops. Since the EuroVision song contest had just been hosted in Baku, the English style taxis were adorned with advertising for the event.  Shopping bags advertising the event were still being used.  We strolled the metropolitan vistas, mingling with people from other parts of the world and had a western flare!

As with entering Azerbaijan, my exit was an obscure time of day.  I took a taxi to the airport in the early hours of the morning, saying my goodbyes to Fiona at our final destination, a hotel tucked away in the ‘old town’ area of Baku.  Thank you Fiona for sharing your experience.

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Old city, Baku