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.