So, I spend most of my time away from site with three people: Jessica, Sean and Eli. Whenever we leave site, the natural question that people ask us is “Where do you live?”. Jessica lives in Zagatala, a city in the north part of the country. People always respond “Zagatala is so beautiful! It has a lot of nuts and the land is pretty! It is a very liberal community!” Sean lives in Mingechevir, a mere 45 minute mini-bus ride away from my own site. People always react to his site by gushing “Mingechevir is a gorgeous city! It is new and clean! We go swim at the reservoir.” My host mom always asks me to buy fish when I go there (it is cheaper and fresher, straight from the reservoir), but I conveniently “forget” to buy the fish every time because I don’t want to carry smelly fish on the bus ride home. Eli lives in Lenkeran. When he states this fact, it’s like he said he was living in Eden. “The weather is so nice there! Oranges are really good in Lenkeran! It is SO BEAUTIFUL with mountains and beaches! There is a rich culture there!” They never mention my favorite part of Lenkeran, the only FIFA regulation-sized soccer field in the country where many games are played. Needless to say, although I have not been there yet, I will be making quite a few appearances in Lenkeran. All of these sites are generally considered to be good site placements and people wish for them as they are in PST. Then the line of questioning falls on me, with the questioner becoming more and more wracked with anticipation on what I am going to say. What could be better than those cities that have been mentioned? I take a deep breath and say Goranboy. The normal reaction to this statement is “Oh.” That’s it. I have even got “Goranboy isn’t a good city. I am sorry.” You can ask Eli, Jess and Sean. They have all seen it, many times in fact. The buildup is so big, and then there’s the letdown. I have actually made a rule with the aforementioned companions that when that question is posed to us, I am to be the first one to say where my site is. No exceptions. They have graciously agreed to this condition of our friendship for they have seen the drastic fall of spirit from the questioning Azeri when I say Goranboy. I say, first let ‘em down, then build them up with the Lenkerans, Zagatalas and Mingechevirs.
When I got my siteplacement, there was no one I could find who had even BEEN to Goranboy. Everyone else had current volunteers living there or knew a former volunteer who lived there, or knew special things that happen in that city (there’s an actual POMEGRANITE festival in one city, cool beans!). No one really new a lot about Goranboy, so Kate and I really had no idea what we were getting into. After the fact, I figured out that ONE volunteer in-country had been to the site, out of 60 currently serving in Azerbaijan. Many people had said “I’ve driven through there on my way to…” but they haven’t really driven through Goranboy, but Goran, a rest stop on the way to places in the west of the country, which gives my city an even WORSE reputation as a small rest stop on the way to Ganja. I relate it with people who say they have passed through Hartford on their way to New York City. Has anyone actually been to Hartford to visit?
So one night in Mingechevir a few weeks ago, I was reading a guide book about Azerbaijan. I read about the wonderful Mingechevir, Zagatala and Lenkeran, where one MUST SEE this and HAS TO SEE that. I looked up Gornaboy for the fun of it. I didn’t think it would even be there. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Goranboy was in the index, and at a glance, it even had its own couple of paragraphs! I was distressed to see that the first line of the paragraph went as follows: There isn’t much to see in the unremarkable Goranboy. My site was called “unremarkable”. People go visit places for many different reasons, beautiful places, historical sites, places of pleasure and places of destruction. No one wants to visit or live in an “unremarkable” place.
For the past few weeks I have been wandering the streets of Goranboy (a common pastime for Kate and I) and have been figuring out what exactly it is about Goranboy that is REMARKABLE. I have decided that I really like this town, and that there are actually a lot of things to remark about. A visit from Eli, that guy from Lenkeran with the soccer field, helped me put my town in perspective.
Point number one: the people. Kate and I have been in this community for exactly 5 and a half months and can’t walk anywhere in the town without running into someone we know. With our powers combined, we have visited about half the community to have tea and other goodies in their homes and have outstanding invitations from the rest of the ladies in Goranboy to have a cup with them. People here are pretty liberal thinking as well. When Eli did visit, my family not only let him stay with us at our house, but *GASP* he stayed in my room with me. Albeit, he slept in a different bed, but it was still amazing, because that kind of boy/girl interaction is frowned upon in Azerbaijan and volunteers have run into trouble before having the opposite sex sleep over at their house on a visit. My family surprised me when they SUGGESTED that Eli stay in my room. A week after he has visited, I have caught no grief from the community about it either, even though the 6’2 giant stands out like a sore thumb in this country. The kids are hilarious here and are not afraid to talk to us. They treat us like foreigners, but it is like FES in “That 70’s Show” (it’s in all caps because his name stands for Foreign Exchange student on the show). We say funny things but the kids like having us around too. The people here also have supported me in playing soccer and Kate’s running. Our athletic adventures certainly stand out, but there are communities where girls haven’t played soccer and only run in the mornings when people won’t see them. THANK GOD I live in a community that allows me to play soccer or you might have been seeing an Amy with 50 extra pounds on her at Christmas. As my mother so delicately put it a few months ago when I expressed weight gain concerns: “Be careful, you want to be under the weight limit on the plane”.
Point number two: resources. While at first, Kate and I panicked about what on earth we were going to do here, we gradually realized that we have a lot on hand to use to develop the youth of Azerbaijan. My work, the Ministry of Youth and Sport, has a brand new building that JUST opened and is constructing a pool. I am going to be able to have lecture sessions and computer clubs at the new building and (God help the children!) I will be teaching swimming lessons in the new pool. The new pool also has a game room and exercise room underneath the building in which we want to have some sort of club and Kate maybe wants to do some exercise classes for the otherwise athletically inactive females of Goranboy. We also have a teacher in one of the schools who speaks phenomenal English and wants to help us and a 3rd grade teacher who wants to improve her English and “help people” who we can plan projects with. My favorite resource is the soccer field. It isn’t FIFA regulation size, turf, or even nice grass. But there is grass. There are two fields in Goranboy, and this is a stadium field. When I saw it, I thought it was for a professional team or maybe a junior pro team, but my work said it was only for the kids! It is one of the most awesome fields I have ever seen. Not because of its beautiful grass or brand new stadium, both those entities need some work, but its purpose is solely for the kids of Gornaboy. It is also plopped down smack in between two mountain ranges.
This brings me to point number three (and what I believe to be Kate’s favorite part of Goranboy): the mountains. The landscape of my community isn’t something to write home about (hehe, I am writing home about it though!). There is one building in the city that is above 4 floors and that’s an apartment building. There is the omnipresent Heydar Aliyev Park that abides in all region centers as an homage to the late leader of the Azerbaijani Republic. We have a comparatively big post office with a post lady who is the bane of Kate’s existence but loves me, haha. We have one main paved road and a few paved ones off to the side, but most are dirt. We have the smallest bazaar I have seen in a region center. There is no river, lake, forest or anything of that sort. No university or higher educational body to brag about (even in Merrimack we have Tomas Moore College!). We have no bus station, but a dirt lot that takes people only to the nearest big city, Ganja. This is in the OPPOSITE direction of where Kate and I normally want to go, so what we have to do is catch a 5 minute 3-manat taxi ride out to the aforementioned Goran where buses from Ganja pass through and go to all parts of the country. I have asked about this taxi ride, and people in the community say Kate and I are not getting ripped off, but among the Peace Corps Volunteers it is agreed that a 3-manat 5-minute taxi ride is robbery in Azerbaijan. I know PCV’s who can get to the opposite side of their city in a 5 minute ride for one manat. ANYWAYS, sorry for the tangent. What we DO have in Goranboy to brag about is that we are surrounded by these beautiful snow-capped mountains. These, as I am told, will stay snow-capped for a while after all the snow has melted on the other mountains in Azerbaijan. On a clear day, Kate and I can walk out to the soccer field and the view is AWESOME. It’s pretty romantic and only makes our relationship as site mates stronger, haha. Living in Southern New Hampshire, I haven’t seen too many impressive mountains, but a mountain expert came and approved our mountains, so I know they are pretty geshenk. (Geshenk is the Azeri word for awesome, beautiful, cool, sweeeet all in one. I will be using it from here on out). The clear view of the mountains isn’t offered to us too often due to pollution in the area *cough*, but when it is clear, it’s amazing.
Point number four: Kate. I know that the writer of that travel book couldn’t have remarked about my site mate, but I feel like when talking about my site, I have to afford some of the post to my site mate, Kate. She is 24 like me and we get along very well. We walk around together and attract a lot of attention, but it doesn’t really pose a problem. We do conversation clubs together because that way it’s just more fun because there is someone there you can look at and say: “Did YOU hear that, because I definitely heard that. That was NOT NORMAL!” We spend a lot of time here trying to figure life out in Azerbaijan and are each other’s crutches if one of us needs it. We have a lot of fun making fun of life here, so instead of getting upset at what happened, we laugh a lot of the time. This has been my approach to many things in life, and to have a site mate who likes to laugh at things is good for me (Alright, I admit that maybe sometimes we laugh AT people, but that’s okay, because they laugh at us too).
So I think I have made a pretty good case for my site. Even if it isn’t, I have proven that it is remarkable, because I have just written a pretty long blog post about it. Goranboy was a depressing thought before I got here and realized how awesome it is. I live in a community where everyone knows my name (CHEERS!) and will be protected by those rare haters out there. I have some pretty scenes to look at, a lot to work with, and a site mate who I couldn’t have hand-picked any better. So, even though my last post was a little depressing, I really do like it here in Azerbaijan and especially in the Unremarkable Goranboy.