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!!! (http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/03/baku-deathstar.php) 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