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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
We 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.
“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.
Old city, Baku