Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Author's note: I leave Azerbaijan November 23 and go to Southeast Asia where hopefull I will keep blogging until I get home. Maybe I will blog about re-entry too, who knows.

Goranboy is a place where everybody knows my name. Well, mine or Kate’s. Most of the time the people in our community call me Kate half the time, but that’s okay. When our friends get off the bus at the taxi stand, all the taxi drivers see Americans and ask “Are you going to Kate and Amy’s house?”. They all know where we live and who is likely to be trying to get there. I can’t walk down the street without seeing someone I know, which is mostly a good thing. If Kate or I have to tell our students something, we walk right into the school without anyone questioning why we’re there to give them the message, or we tell their mother. That works most of the time. If I want dinner out, there’s no restaurant in town so I go to someone’s house who’s bound to feed me.

As my time is winding down in Azerbaijan, I have been going to different regions to say goodbye to people as they themselves leave the country. The funny thing about visiting people in their communities is that it’s the same. People know “their” volunteer. If they had a Peace Corps volunteer in the region, a visiting volunteer is sure to hear about him/her. I went to a small village called Lahij, and it is a BEAUTIFUL village full of copper artisans. It is a tourist spot of the country, and a volunteer had served there who left a year ago, a YEAR AGO, and we still heard all about him (we’ll call him T). As soon as we walked into the village we were hailed with shouts of “Do you know T?”, “How is T doing?”, “When is T coming back?”. It’s often heartwarming to me that the people of a region miss their volunteer so much when he/she leaves.

It’s much the same when I go and visit host families of other volunteers. “My daughter is the best Azerbaijani speaker”, “My son is the nicest person ever!” It’s very endearing to me to see this bond that volunteers form. It’s not like living in a normal community in the States. Sure, in Merrimack I can’t get a quick trip to the grocery store in without someone seeing me in my sweats. Here, if I went to buy groceries in my sweats everyone I know would be asking about it the next day. Why on earth would an unmarried girl leave the house in sweatpants?! We have the whole community watching what we do, and at first, many volunteers try to be the perfect person. In Azerbaijan, that would be wearing black clothing, wearing clothes that cover up, keeping your shoes perfectly clean (even in the mud) and just being as inconspicuous as possible. As I got on in service, I started to be “me” more in the streets. I listened to my Ipod and sang and danced as I walked down the street. I wore bright colors and waved at everyone I knew (waving is not particularly common here). I noticed that people liked it more when I was being me. They liked that I wasn’t putting on airs, acting like something I wasn’t. I got friendly with all the bazaar ladies and even Kate’s host mom told me that she likes the way I act now, because I am more at ease with her. I realize that we are expected to maintain a tricky balancing act. Volunteers have a special spot in their community because they are different, not the same. They show their community what Americans are like, and that Americans are not aliens (in the extraterrestrial sense), but human beings like them. We are the same, but different. I am showing people in my community who I am really, and now they have gotten to know more than just my name.

Volunteers belong to their sites. I am Goranboy’s volunteer. I belong to them. In other regions, it’s the same. I get stopped by people on the streets and asked if I am a Peace Corps Volunteer. It’s a common question because a huge majority of the foreigners in the regions (there aren’t a lot of us) who speak Azerbaijani are Peace Corps. The person on the street then tells me all about “their” volunteer. EVERYTHING about their volunteer. I could be told anything from what projects they are doing to who came and visited this person’s house last. The communities take pride in us as much as we take pride in them, and the as the learning experience continues on, a trust forms. I have talked with people on the street for two years, sharing my story. I have guested, played soccer and visited schools. I have taken kids on overnights. So, after a long journey, I am leaving this place where everybody knows my name… and my cell phone number… and where I’m from… and where I live… and what I had for lunch… and the last time I went running…

Picture 1: Part of my family that I have formed here.
Picture 2: Me in Lahic
Picture 3: The overnight softball tournament that parents trusted us to take their pre-teens to.
Picture 4:To be a part of a community, you have to dance funny I guess.

A Poem

My friend wrote a beautiful poem a while back, and I wanted to share it with all of you, just never got around to putting it up. I keep going back to it as I end my service, and I think it's wonderful. The words not in italics are my own translation of Azeri, everything else is by the hand of Jackie Dent, a Youth Development worker in a tiny village called Zayam.

"Why I'm Here"

Ay qız (Hey girl)
Hara qaçırsan? (Where are you running?)
Nəyi axtarırsan? (What are you looking for?)

Funny you ask, because I’ve
just found it.
I found it yesterday
when my landlady flicked
out her bottom dentures with
her tongue
just to make us laugh.

I found it when
a package came from
my mom, from Amerikastan, and
I absentmindedly handed the bubble wrap
to my host mom
so she could pop it like the
sweet child she is.

I found it again when later that day
I saw her sitting on her
10 inches from the TV,
singing muğam at the top
of her lungs and popping
that same bubble wrap.

When it didn’t go away
I started becoming wary,
braced myself for the blow, the
rapid descent into the mundane,
the uncomfortable, that slow
nagging like a dripping faucet
or an incessant tap tap tap on
the shoulder,
reminding you that you’re not really home.

But hey, I found it again when
I remembered that I don’t
have a faucet from which
can drip because I don’t have
running water.
But I DO have a house
all to myself.

I found it when i stepped out of my
communal tin can toilet
to an aggitated male turkey that was
either trying to intimidate me
or mate.
Either way.

So dear xanim,
I’m always running, always
But it always seems to creep up on me
when I’m not even looking.

23 months. And it still comes and
It is nameless, but when it’s here,
it’s here.
And i can then recall the simple reasons why
I’m here.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Bizarre Bazaar

The Bizarre Bazar

Over the last two years, I have had the pleasure of doing my shopping in the Goranboy Bazaar. It’s probably the smallest market of all the region centers that I have seen, and I rarely visit it. However small, I can get my basic needs there, and within the city I can find a plethora of odds and end that make up my daily diet.

In my second week in Azerbaijan, my host dad Adigozel asked (in Azerbaijani) if I wanted to go to the bazaar with him. In Tagiyev, the village that I lived in for the first two months, the bazaar was only open on Sunday mornings, like a farmers’ market. As we made our way to the bazaar, Adigozel told me to stick close to him and let him do the talking. I laughed to myself as I nodded in agreement because I had a vocabulary of maybe 40 words at this point, and I wasn’t confident enough to use them outside of my host dad and mom, so I wasn’t going to go anywhere.

As we entered the bazaar, I was taken aback. There was produce everywhere. Freight trucks full of cabbages and “vintage” Soviet cars stuffed full of apples. Ladies bundled up in scarves and robes lined the streets selling bunches of cilantro, parsley and basil. Potatoes were sold on every corner, and each type of potato had a different price. I couldn’t tell what the difference between a good potato and bad potato was, and I guess that is why Adigozel didn’t want me talking. People were shouting at me from all different directions, and I had no idea what they were saying, but I assume that it couldn’t have been anything too bad, because my host dad would have had someone’s head on a platter.

As we walked through the bazaar, Adigozel bought up the store, to put it proverbially. He bought the produce for the week, and as we were walking, I realized the reason he had brought me along. I was the pack horse. I had thought he invited me because he had been helping me practice my food vocabulary at the house and I figured he wanted to give me some “experiential learning”. This may have been the case, but he knew exactly what my real purpose would be. As he made his purchases, he handed me bag after bag. He and I carted all the vegetables and fruits home, each of us hunched over Quasimodo-style with the weight of our groceries (apples are friggin’ heavy!). We must have been a sight to see for my host mom, a proud old man and a young American woman walking side by side hunched over with the groceries in tow.

As I moved out to my region, I did not have too much experience with the bazaar until I moved out of my host family’s house. When I saw the Goranboy bazaar for the first time, it looked okay to me. It was open every day and had the fruits and vegetables that were in season. However I didn’t know any better. Two weeks later I ventured to Mingechevir where the bazaar is HUGE. I gasped when I saw the out-of-season vegetables and my mouth dropped when I learned it was open until 5pm! That is three hours later than our bazaar and a better time for people who work to buy their produce. I had bazaar envy.

“Bazaar envy?” you question, but yes, there is such a thing here. If I go to the bazaars of the big cities, I can find almost anything, including the very elusive broccoli. There is not even a word for broccoli in Azerbaijani. We showed our neighbor once a picture of broccoli and asked what the name is, and he said he had never seen it before, and his father is a farmer. But in Ganja, you can get broccoli at the bazaar. Village PCV’s also have this bazaar envy problem. In many of the village bazaars, like Tagiyev, they are only open once/week and you have to do your shopping for the week. God forbid it rains before one of these days because then you are walking through mud up to your knees buying muddy veggies to cart home to your house, which then becomes muddy. There’s no escaping it. While I was in Turkey, I got a chance to visit the Grand Bazaar there. It was incredible. Colors everywhere, anything from hookahs to scarves, bananas to artichokes were available to me. We spent about 3 hours walking back and forth and went back there two days later for two more hours of looking. That was bazaar envy.

My bazaar in Goranboy dictates what kind of dinner Kate and I eat. If we can’t get to the bazaar in the afternoon, we are stuck without any type of produce. Usually one or two of the shops sell a limited amount of vegetables until 5pm, but these are on the other side of town. However, our bazaar is only 3 minutes or so from our house, so if we can get the time, it’s really easy to cart our vegetables back. Why don’t we buy veggies for the week? you ask. Well, we don’t have a fridge. Last night we really wanted some chicken soup, but our house was empty, and neither of us wanted to walk the 15 minutes it would take to get vegetables for soup. We had hot chocolate for dinner (sorry mom).

The bazaar isn’t only about going and getting your food, it’s also about building relationships. I have a herbs lady, an onion lady, a flatbread lady, a butcher, a carrots and cabbage lady, etc. Kate and I are “their” Americans. We have built these relationships within our community. So when I walk through the bazaar, I have nice conversations with each of my vendors, even if I don’t have to buy anything from them that day. If I ever had a problem or needed anything, I know these people would help. On Thanksgiving, we needed a live turkey. I asked around at the bazaar and got it for pretty cheap from the village. They made sure that I didn’t need anyone to kill it for me (the men offered to help) and then offered to carry Tom back to my house. We got him back alive and well, our own pilgrim experience on Thanksgiving was a success.

All in all, I am pretty lucky. For as much complaining I do, I get really cheap, delicious fresh vegetables all year round. I get to eat pomegranate, apricots and persimmon out of my back yard for free, while it costs like $3 for one pomegranate in the states (that’s a COMPLETE guess). I have learned to cook things from scratch and definitely figured out how to be creative with the ingredients I have.
So to sum up, I will give you a list of things I can find in Goranboy in each season to give you all a taste of what living “locally grown” is like.

All year: Parsley, cilantro, dill, bananas (imported), onions, tomatoes (but they go from $.30 to $4/kg in winter), garlic

Fall(late September-late November): Apples, pomegranate, quince, persimmon, spinach, carrots, cabbage, green beans, squash and pumpkin, nuts

Winter (late November to early March): cabbage, carrots, onions, spinach, green beans apples (although they are less delicious), squash, mandarin oranges and beets

Spring (March to late May): early spring is the worst, because winter vegetables are going out, and summer vegetables are coming in but late spring we get alchas (unripe plums), apricots, cucumbers, mulberries, and carrots

Summer (late May to September): Peppers, eggplant, figs, apricot, cherries, strawberries, watermelon, yemish (a type of melon), peaches, grapes, and plums

Never: Broccoli, fresh peas, artichokes, avocado, lettuce, cauliflower, asparagus, zucchini, and summer squash

Picture 1: What Adigozel does with his loot from the bazaar
Picture 2: The Grand Bazar in Istanbul
Editor's note: I will put pictures up of the Goranboyu bazaar when I take them! :)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

I'm On A Marsh

I'm on a Marsh

If I had to think of something that all Peace Corps volunteers share around the world, it is a scary transportation system. Just crossing the road in your host country is enough to make you buy up that Peace Corps life insurance ASAP. It isn’t limited to the villages either. Baku and Ganja, the two biggest cities in Azerbaijan, are actually probably the two worst places in Azerbaijan to cross the street. In two years here, I have seen more accidents than I can count. To my complete horror, I even once saw a little old lady get hit by a car while crossing one of the main streets in Ganja. She must have eaten her Wheaties that morning, because she was fine, but it was a scary moment.

I have even been hit here. When I first got out to site (a year and a half ago) I was walking through Goranboy one day with a young Azeri girl, and we were crossing a side street, parallel to the one main street in our town. A car was coming off the side street, and I was paying attention as to not get hit by it. I crossed in front, and a tuk-tuk (little motor scooter) came flying around the corner from the main street and swiped my kegs out from underneath me. I went flying up in the air and landed flat on my back. The Azeri girl screamed and all the men standing around and in the cafes came to pick me up and make sure I was okay. The only thing that hurt was my pride, and my knees a little. I brushed myself off and hurried away. Alas, in Azerbaijan it isn't that easy to escape your embarrassment. The Azeri girl still calls it my "catastrophe", and I got into a taxi a few months ago and the guy in the passenger seat asked the taxi driver who we were. He called Kate the "girl who runs everywhere" and me "that girl who got hit by a motorcycle". I really hope that's not how I am remembered here!

The many form s of transportation in Azerbaijan can overwhelm a person. At any normal Avtovagzal (bus station) one may find buses, mini-buses, taxis, van-taxis, motorcycles, tuk-tuks and the ever scary marshrutka (marsh). Ah, the marshrutka,. The simultaneous God-send and devil machine. It is bigger than a mini-van and smaller than a mini-bus. It seats about 16-18 people and will drive anywhere. They are 99% percent rust held together with industrial duct tape. I don’t know if they come with mufflers from the manufacturer, but by the time they hit Azerbaijan, the muffler is long gone. Only half of them still have the shock pads. So when you board one of these things, you are looking at a long, loud, bumpy ride. We Peace Corps volunteers get used to it though. When Jessica came to visit Azerbaijan, we got on a marsh to get from Georgia into Azerbaijan it was a 4 hour ride and we were both EXHAUSTED by this point. I told Jess she could sleep on the ride over.

The ride from Tbilisi to Zaqatala (Georgia to Azerbaijan) is a windy, bumpy one. As soon as we set out, my head hit the side window and I zonked. I woke up 3 hours later, looked back at Jessica and said “Did you have a nice nap?” She looked at me like I was a crazy person. She hadn’t slept a wink. She said that no normal person can sleep on a ride like that. I chuckled to myself and realized my amazing adaptation. I wonder now if adaptation is why my father can sleep anywhere at any time. His sleeping abilities are incredible and well renown in the King family, and I suppose now that it is because of his many years in the Army and Army Reserve finding decent places to sleep on the road.

There are many dangers to choosing a marsh as your method of transportation. Marshrutkas that are going short distances turn into clown cars. I have stood for as long as an hour to get places. As a person who lives on a main route between Ganja and Baku, the cars are often full when they get to my stop, so I have to push everyone like a left tackle to even get on. The 16-18 passenger vehicle turns into a 25 passenger death trap. People are standing in the aisles, the doorways and between the seats. Not only that, but when you get the privilege to sit next to a old xanim, 9 out of 10 times the xanim takes up her seat AND half of yours. In the winter, this is fine for warmth, those women are like heaters! But in the summer, for me personally, all I want to do is push the xanim out the window, if she could fit.

When someone needs to get off the marsh, everyone must get off to let him/her out of the car. The worst and best part about it is that people haven the marsh stop whenever they want. This is terrible because many times it takes twice as long to get to your destination. People will ask for a stop in the middle of nowhere, nothing around but cows and fields as far as the eye can see. I have thought about it a lot, and I still have no clue where these people are going. They walk off into nowhere like Shoeless Joe Jackson in “Field of Dreams”. This is why the long rides vary greatly. My ride to Baku can take from 4.5-6 hours, depending on how often it stops for people. On the other hand, I have stopped the marsh for my own purposes countless times, and have stopped it to get on in some remote places. I have used it to my favor. I work the system so that when I am worked over by this same system, I don’t get as frustrated.

Another peril on the marsh is letting anyone know you are different at all. I am a complete failure in this category just from appearances alone. I get stares up and down the aisle and there’s no way to avoid them. Some of my fellow colleagues are a little better at blending in than me, and they will pretend they are Azeri so they will not have to spend 6 hours on a bus telling people who they are. I am all for describing my experience here, what I am doing, why I came and where I come from. This is actually one of the goals of the Peace Corps and I like doing this in a controlled setting. But to be with a stranger for 6 hours straight who will not let you sleep because you are different is a bit much. It’s like that guy on the airplane who takes up the arm rests and talks to you incessantly. There’s a point where my politeness hits its limits. I have actually woken up on a marsh to find a cell phone in my face and a guy taking a picture of me, sleeping. CREEPY.

Overall, the travel in Azerbaijan is risky but worth it. I appreciate the public transport here. It brings me all over the country and to my fellow volunteers. Marshtrukas are dirt cheap, run quite often, and go all over the country. I may bet my life every time I get on one, but I believe I am playing with pretty great odds. In America, we have perils to our public transport as well, with way fewer interesting stories to come home with at the end of the day.

Picture 1: The perils of crossing the streets in Goranboy.
Picture 2: We are stopped by sheep just as often as people.
Picture 3: Somewhere this kind of photo is out there on an Azeri's phone.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The "New" Place

The "new" place

When Jessica and I reached the driving age, we bought a very old Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. We called her Cici for short. She may have been the worst car I have ever owned, but she had style and character. Her nameplate had fallen off and she had a hula girl stuck to her dashboard and her AC didn’t work. She made Jessica and I independent though, and for that she still holds a place in my heart.

A few months ago (maybe a year ago) I wrote a post about my apartment in Azerbaijan. “The Money Pit” was home to Kate and I for 6 months. It was a real mess, but I loved that apartment the way a person loves their first POS car. It was my first time on my own, my first time in a place that wasn’t paid for by my parents or on university property. There were a lot of life lessons learned in that apartment. I learned how to be a small-time plumber, a big-time housekeeper and how to ventilate a hybrid apartment/oven in 1000 degree weather.

Alas, a crazy lady was our downfall, and Kate and I were forced to move. After collecting our next month’s rent, she asked for 50 AZN (manat, the Azeri currency) more than our normal rate of 100AZN/month. She told us that the rent would be going up by 50%, and Kate and I decided to start looking for a new place. As much as we loved our neighborhood (the free meals were endless), we couldn’t justify paying 50AZN more for a place that wasn’t worth 50AZN alone.

With that, we went on a search for a new place. We asked everyone we knew, and even reached out to people we didn’t know. When two single American girls ask for a new place, the questions are endless, but they usually are “You want to live alone?!”, “You don’t have a family here?!”, and the granddaddy of ‘em all, “Who will cook your food?!”. You see, for some reason nobody thinks we can cook here. So they always assume we have someone cooking and cleaning for us. I am here to say, we do it ourselves folks!

So even though we were VERY CLEAR about wanting to live alone and not with a xanim, we were shown many places with old ladies living in it. Sometimes in Azerbaijan, there are old ladies around who, for some reason, don’t have anyone living with them, and they get scared. They want someone to live with them to protect them. Apparently Kate and I look like two bad asses, because we were shown these houses. Either they were showing us the houses that no one else wanted (those women can be crotchety!) or they really didn’t believe we wanted to be by ourselves. Either way, we finally found our new place when a guy at the bazaar told us he knew someone who knew someone (it’s a mafia bazaar) and we could take a look at the place. Well, it was a huge house with a nice yard with persimmon, apricot and pomegranate trees in it. And a barking dog. So we asked when we could move in, and we packed our apartment up that day.

Our old landlady (I have mentioned she’s crazy, right?), heard wind that we were moving, and as we were getting ready, she came over to the neighborhood. She got up in our faces, yelling things we couldn’t understand, and making a huge scene only proper for Jerry Springer and the taxi guys at the bus stops. I caught “animals”, “didn’t give me my money” and “filthy” in the rant, but before we had a chance to respond, our neighbors were at our side, defending us from the crazy xanim from hell. In all the chaos and references to donkeys, it was touching to see our neighbors take up our battle when they didn’t even need to get involved. They went to the mattresses for us.

Anyways, we ended up at the new house without any other incidents. We have at the house internet, heat, hot water a stove and a big kitchen. It’s not dusty, it’s cool because of the awning over the porch, and we have two cribs just in case Kate and I want to start a family. And the beds are way more comfortable. The only problem is our landlady is right across the street. I will direct you to a post by my colleague Aaron McKean about landlords/ladies in Azerbaijan: In a nutshell, landlords have all the rights in Azerbaijan, it is still their house, and they can walk in any time they want. So our landlady, being very interested in us Americans, walks in all the time and inspects our cleaning and the way we live. No privacy.

This house has been the source of headaches and laughter. Kate and I had to share the living room and sleep on the floor for all of winter because our gas stove only heated one room. We have been able to plant a garden, but not able to grow anything. The landlady’s dog is kept in our backyard, but he barks ALL THE TIME and does not want to be patted. What’s the point in being a dog if you don’t want to be patted?
Our most recent excitement with the new place was that a family moved in next door. By next door, I mean in our compound, in the formerly closed off part of the house. We would be sharing a bathroom, shower room and yard with these new people and we were nervous.

The Peace Corps gods smiled upon us the day they moved that family into our house. The mother and father are about our age and they have two kids, a girl who is 6, Guller (pronounced gool-air), and a little boy of 4, Habil (prounounced Hab-eel). Guller is very smart, in a devious way. She has her brother follow her around all over the place, and when she gets bored with him, she gets rid of him by hanging ou with her mom (which Habil would never do) or get rid of him in more creative ways. One time she hid one of Habil’s toys on our porch and he was searching all over for it. When he asked his sister where it was, she said it was in the dog house and proceeded to go watch to see if her brother was eaten by the mean dog. I saved Habil from being an appetizer, but I saw something in Guller that day that I once saw in my big sister Lisa (go hide and I will find you). The boy Habil is a crack-up. He’ll do anything for a laugh and laugh at anything. He insists on being called “Habil Muellim” (Habil teacher) and conducts lessons daily in how to ride a tricycle (which he falls off of constantly). The parents give us stuff from their garden all the time, and the fruit on the trees is never-ending.

The “new” place is great. Kate and I are comfortable in our surroundings and have a house that stays under 95 degrees when the thermometer outside hits above 100. We get free fresh food, fun time with funny kids and have spaces to ourselves. However, we still go back to the old neighborhood to visit the xanims that stuck up for us a year ago and hang out with the neighborhood kids for old time’s sakes. While the new house is shiny and fun, the old house still holds a place in my heart. Like Cici.

First picture: The bathroom a our old place.
Second picture: Me all packed up and ready to go with all our worldly possessions.
Third picture: The kitchen at our new place.
Fourth picture: Habil Muellim playing soccer in our patio.

Monday, June 6, 2011

My Last Novruz

This is a post I wrote a few months ago, but didn't post it. Here you go, more to come soon, I promise.

So this past week everyone in Azerbaijan got the week off for a holiday called Novruz. It is the celebration of spring here, and my favorite holiday in Azerbaijan.

Novruz is a mixture of Halloween and Easter with a ton of tradition, celebration and food. Each table is supposed to have certain things on it including candles, special types of cookies, grain, baklava and a big ol’ heap of grass. Kate and I did bought not a single one of these items, but somehow, most still ended up on our table through gifts. Our neighbors, host families and even store owners have given us things to put on our table. Since Kate and I don’t really have Azerbaijani guests over (I think people are afraid of what we may serve them), we have been eating the gifted sweets for about two weeks now. I am seriously thinking about how I am going to lose my “Novruz 15”.

So I have talked about guesting a lot, I actually think I did a blog post on it. But for those of you who can’t figure it out, guesting is going over somebody’s house and having them fill you to the brim with food. To be an American living in her community for over a year, Novruz is guesting on steroids. On the Tuesday before the holiday (which is actually also a holiday) I ate two dinners and have never been so stuffed in my entire life.

My Every Thanksgiving, I warn my darling twin sister about the dangers of eating too much too quickly. I usually council her on portion control and taking it slow, and she usually ends up in pain, still eating a slice of pie. This Novruz, I did not follow my own advice. I definitely overate and was in pain for most of the week. The traditional food at Novruz is plov (a delicious rice dish), kebob (chicken, sheep, cow, whatever you can get your hands on), dovga (a sour milk with greens dish that is mostly gross to Americans but I actually don’t mind) and Russian salad which is a bunch of vegetables covered in mayonnaise. After dinner, comes dessert with a delicious treat called shekerbure. This is a traditional Novruz cookie filled with nuts and sugar. Actually, most of the sweets are filled with nuts and sugar. Also eaten is baklava, which is probably my favorite part of Novruz. Kate and I were gifted a few plates of baklava and a week later were still eating the stuff.

During Novruz, there are specific customs that are celebrated. Here are a few of the traditions I celebrated with my community some I know the reason why they do it, some I do not:
• Papaq atmaq: In “Throwing the hat”, kids creep up to your door so as not to be noticed, knock and throw their hat at it and run away. They are not supposed to be seen by the person in the house or their hat will not be filled. The person in the house fills the hats with sweets, eggs and/or candies.
• Egg game: I have no idea why they do this at Novruz r what it means, but the egg game is when you take an egg and hold it up on its end, hit it against another egg’s end and whomever’s cracks, that person must give up their egg. I apparently am not so good at this game because I always lose.
• Listening at the door: During Novruz, you are supposed to listen at the door of a neighbor’s house and whatever you hear, that will be your fate for the next year. Last year I heard a mother screaming at her kid, which I guess meant that I would have to discipline kids a lot in the year (which I did). This year I heard the Television and didn’t understand a thing. That makes me nervous…
• Reading tea leaves: You are supposed to read the tea leaves at the bottom of your cup during Novruz.
• Hopping over fires: It is customary to hop over fires during this time so that your troubles fall into them and the fire burns them away. I was surprised I could even hop my butt over the fire because I was weighed down with food.

The festivities were wonderful this year. In each region, the city normally holds a huge celebration in the city center. Goranboy had a small but wonderful celebration where there were traditional costumes, horses, dancing and a huge bonfire. I also went to the bigger city of Mingechevir to see what they had to offer. They also had girls and boys dressed in traditional clothing but they had a ton of kids participating. They also had food vendors and a tightrope walker. People had to stand crowded around the circle of activity, but as foreigners, we received special treatment and actually got to walk amongst it all taking pictures and talking with the kids.

Overall, I will miss Novruz celebrations. It is by far my favorite holiday to spend here (even though we slaughtered a turkey for Thanksgiving this year). It is a time of traditions, coming together, and eating as much as humanly possible, and that is what every holiday should be about.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Just call me Skywalker

Just Call me Skywalker

This past week I ventured into the capital city here in Azerbaijan, Baku. We had our Mid-Service conference (that’s right, I am OVER half way done!) and I got a chance to be there for a week and really thought about what this city means to me and my service.

You see, Baku is like the force, there are two sides to it. There is the light side that helps me through my service and is the center of the Peace Corps world in Azerbaijan. The dark side is the one that keeps you drinking all night in the city instead of doing your work out in the regions. We, as Peace Corps Volunteers are all Skywalkers, but we are forced to choose the Anakin way or the Luke way of handling Baku because the force is a powerful thing. It can chew you up and spit you out before you know it.

The light side of the force is Baku as the land of plenty. The reason I call it this is that in Baku, one can find and do things they normally can not do in the regions. I often visit to buy food supplies like parmesan cheese, soy sauce and syrup. I can go out for dinner and get Thai, American, Chinese, Lebanese, Wookie (JK!) and many other types of food. I can go out and have a drink with my fellow Jedis, and I can actually encounter people who speak English and can help me in my quests for different items. It can present me with opportunities to obtain funding, meet with officials, and gather ideas for my projects. In Baku, I have met many ex-pats who have been more than gracious in housing homeless, moneyless volunteers and with whom I can play ultimate Frisbee or soccer. Also in Baku, you can find the most obvious symbols of Azerbaijani culture including the old city and Maiden’s Tower. This collides wonderfully with the modernity of a European city and a youth population that is coming into their own contemporary views on politics, culture and the role of Azerbaijan in the world. It is a fascinating place to be while at the same time rest and respite from day to day life in the regions.

Nonetheless, the other side of Baku is a dark one. It is a city that drains you of money, exhausts you to the inner core, and traps you to stay for longer than you intended. In Baku, I will spend 20-40 AZN per day on food and transportation. In the regions, I spend about 4 AZN or less. Baku is the only time I let loose my sins. I go out until late at night, drinking and partying. I can get a lot done in Baku with all its resources, but it takes me twice the time it would in the regions. In regards to culture, Baku may have a lot, but it is a rare Azerbaijani who says they are actually from Baku. Many times they will claim a region as their cultural heritage even if they are born in Baku because each regional culture is passed down to children. In Baku, the regional culture in modernity and Azerbaijanis want a past to hold on to, not an ever-changing city. The new city landscape even includes a hotel that will eventually look like the Death Star!!! ( With all that there is to do and the accommodating nature of the wonderful ex-pats, I have a propensity to stay longer than I originally intended. If I go for a weekend, I may stay an extra Monday. This may not sound terrible, but it means I am speaking in only English for one more day, working in a community that isn’t mine for one more day, and spending WAY WAY over my budget for one more day and these days add up.

When I get back from Baku, it is like I have been in limbo, struggling between the sides of the force. One part of me is glad that I went. I had gotten to see my fellow volunteers and catch up over a few beers, restocked my cabinet full of American goodness, and reconnected with my Baku contacts. The other part of me is ecstatic to be back in Goranboy. I rest up, recuperate, get to speak in Azerbaijani and work on my projects within my community. I actually feel like a Peace Corps Volunteer again, and this is the light side of the force at its best.

Just call me Luke I guess.

Pictures: View from Martyr's Ally overlooking Baku, Some PCV's at the Maiden's Tower, Me fighting the Death Star hotel before it gets built

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Back in the USSR

Back in the (former) USSR
Well, about a three weeks ago, I returned from my trip to America and resumed my second year of two in my stint as a Peace Corps volunteer. America was a great vacation, but it feels good to be back. Things have gotten crazy over there! There are pregnant teens on TV and kids from a place called Jersey Shore going crazy all over the place. I had to ask what was with the fist pump multiple times. I caught myself pretentiously saying “Well in Azerbaijan…” a few times, and felt like a little alien while adjusting back to American culture. I could not speak my thoughts openly because people actually would understand what I was about to say, and getting used to the front seat of a car, or even driving, was a step. I did adjust to good wine pretty quickly though.
The time flew by, and finally it came to say goodbye to my family again. Saying goodbye this time was harder than the first time. I was trying to say bye to my little muffin of a niece and all she had interest in was her new dinosaur walker. My poor father drove me to JFK and saw me off through the security gates while I was teary-eyed the whole time. He was a trooper. But as soon as I got to the gate and boarded the plane, I got excited to come back. I like to travel, and even my eight hour layover in Moscow wasn’t too bad. I got off the plane in Baku and immediately met up with another volunteer to go back to the Peace Corps office to sleep off my jetlag.
The next day, I found out from my sitemate Kate that I couldn’t go home because our landlady needed to use our house. I was homeless, so I spent time readjusting in Baku. A few of us had come back from a trip to America at the same time and we spent time together getting reacquainted with Azeri life. I went from Baku to Mingechevir and it took a total of 4 days to get back to Goranboy. I was uncomfortable the whole time I was travelling and unsure of myself. The minute I stepped back into Goranboy I felt at home again. I got a huge hug and Salam from Kate’s host family and all the kids were excited to see Kate and I (she had gone to America too). I haven’t really fell back into a routine as of yet, but since being back, I have met up with some of my Azeri friends, my counterparts and played soccer with the kids. I have been relieved to realize that I actually haven’t forgotten my Azeri language skills and have conversed all about America and my time away with the people I have grown to love to have a part of my daily life. I have also been able to see my Peace Corps family. They are an incredible comfort and it is great to see them after a while. I know I was only gone for two weeks, but it was a long time to be away!
Now it’s nose back to the grindstone. I have a bunch of projects I would love to do in my community while the kids are pushing to get clubs back up and running. I’ve got less than a year left, and I intend to make it count. The first year went by so fast that I feel rushed to make everything happen RIGHT NOW. And of course, I will write about it.
Okay, per accordance with a friend, I will keep this under a page, and write more often. Expect to hear from me weekly (inshallah) and with shorter, more manageable stories.
Till next time,