Thursday, September 10, 2009

Completion of Service...

All of my forms are turned in.
All of my medical tests are done and back with fine results - no TB, no HIV, no parasites.
Most of my goodbyes are said.
I expect this is my last blog as AzerbaiJane.

At 12:01 a.m. I will no longer be a Peace Corps Volunteer.
At this time tomorrow, I will be well on my way home to America.

This experience has been absolutely amazing.
Worth every minute of the 27 months.
I can't believe it is already over.

I am so proud of my time here and what I have done.
And I am so excited to be coming home.
See you soon!

Sag ol, Azerbaijan!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Saying Goodbye...

It is amazing how fast two years go by. It feels like I have been here forever and at the same time, I can't believe it is already time for me to leave. My friends and family and most of my loyal readers know how excited I am to be coming home in about a week and a half. But at the same time, leaving is HARD. I guess that means I did it right, though.

Tomorrow, I leave Lankaran. I have spent the past week or so guesting, saying goodbye and spending time with the people who have come to mean so much to me. I haven't prepared supper for myself in over a week! I've gotten my fill of lavangi, plov, kompot, and chay. I've spent my days walking in the park with students and friends and having tea at the library. I made the tour of shops and the post office to tell them I'm leaving and I'll miss them. I went to school to visit with my director, the teachers and cleaning crew.

Many times over, I have promised to...
- return to visit with my husband and children (that's assuming I'll have a husband and children).
- write letters, emails, text messages, and talk on Skype.
- say hello to my mother, father, Barack Obama, and America.
- show them around Washington D.C. if/when they come to America.

I have turned down offers to...
- marry an Azeri boy so I can stay in Azerbaijan.
- take jars of pickled vegetables and jam to my mother.
- throw out all of my clothes and take him/her in my suitcase instead.

Everywhere I've gone there have been hugs and kisses and tears and many, many pictures. It's been lovely and sad. Knowing that I will probably never see many of these people again makes departing that much harder. I have loved my time here and the people who filled it. I am so lucky to have had all of these amazing people in my life. I will keep it touch, and I hope visit one day. But, for now, I'm saying sag ol and sag ol (goodbye and thank you) to my Azerbaijani family.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


Possibly one of the coolest things about living in a developing country is getting to watch it, well, develop. Over the past 2 years, so many things in Azerbaijan have changed and improved. I'm not talking about the gazillions of high rise building sprouting up in Baku, although construction in this country is a fascinating process. I'm talking about smaller scale changes that will probably have a bigger impact. Here are a few of my favorite examples...

Cars and Travel...
When I first arrived, the majority of the cars you saw were Russian made Ladas and a hand full of Mercedes. Incidentally, the Ladas are almost always white. Don't know why. Anyway. There are still plenty of Ladas on the roads, but now you see almost as many foreign cars. I stopped in my tracks the day I saw a Ford Focus driving around Lankaran. My students tell me that there are apparently a few Hummers here although I've never seen 'em. There are car dealerships of every manufacturer imaginable all over the country. There's even a Chevrolet dealership in the region just north of me.

The roads have improved too - or are in the process of being improved. The first few times I made trip between Lankaran and Baku it felt like we were off-roading. It was uncomfortable and often too bumpy to even sleep through the trip. Now, the road is redone and repaved, making the trip much more enjoyable. I'm one of those people who often gets car-sick, but on our new road, I've even been able to read on the bus. A lot more the roads in town are paved than they were before. And, just a few weeks ago, they painted a line down the middle of the main road in town to help control traffic.

Washing machines and air conditioners seem like a fantasy to most PCVs. And for most families here, that is still the case. You struggle through summer, sweating profusely, with at best a fan in the apartment and everything from jeans to shirts to socks to carpets gets hand-washed. But as I've been looking around recently, I've seen a lot of the apartments in my neighborhood install air conditioners (I'm trying to make friend with all of them!) And washing machines are becoming more and more prevalent. In the past year alone both my counterpart and old host family have gotten washing machines in their homes. I'm a little sad I moved out before that improvement happened!

Last but not least comes perhaps my favorite example - Milk...
2 years ago, the majority of the milk you could buy came straight from the cow. In bigger cities you could sometimes find long shelf life Russian milk, but that was usually only in one or two stores (at least here in Lankaran). About a year ago, the Pal Sud (Pal Milk) factory opened right here in Lankaran. Very quickly we saw Pal Sud coming into almost all of the stores in town. Slowly it spread to Baku and then the other regions. Now, Pal Sud can be found in every region of Azerbaijan. But there's more. As Pal Sud has gotten bigger, so has their product line. The first thing on the shelves was 3.4% milk. A few months later, 2.4% started showing up. Then came qatiq (yogurt) and some other azer-dairy products. The crowning moment was when I walked in a store and discovered 1.4% milk!!!! Oh, how far we've come!

Now I know a lot still needs to change and improve here, but to watch a country go from Ladas to SUVs, from hand washing to washing machines, and from straight-up cow milk to choices in fat percentage in your milk is pretty rad. Seeing these examples and other things - like heaters being installed in the schools and little girls outside playing and rarely losing electricity - makes me hopeful and makes me think. If this much can improve in 2 years, what will Azerbaijan be like in 10?

Friday, August 7, 2009

How I Spend My Days...

My friend Heidi asked how I've been filling my days now that camp is over and most of my work here is done. To be honest, I have more free time than I really know what to do with. My entertainment options are limited, so my activities can get pretty weird. Here's today's project...That's right. It's a model of the Titanic. Complete with Iceberg. I have no idea what I'll do with it now, but it sure was a good way to pass a few hours!

Monday, August 3, 2009


Yay Kamp the Sequel was an incredible success. We had over 130 students attend and participate over the course of three weeks. I truly believe the experience has changed their lives - both in small and big ways. Yay Kamp would not have been possible without the help from so many people at home. So, for all of you who donated to the Peace Corps Partnership Program, or gave stuff to be sent, or just sent good wishes, thank you so much!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Stories from Camp... Mahammad...

One of my favorite kids from camp is a little fifth form boy named Mahammad. Mahammad was a late addition to camp - ha hadn't turned in an application during the school year, but during the first week of camp, his grandmother came to me and asked if he could come. She explained to me that everyday when he saw us all going off to camp, he just cried and cried because he couldn't go. Bleeding heart that I am, I of course said yes, he could absolutely join camp.

Mahammad is one of those kids who is kind of a pain in the butt a lot times, but you still just love the little punk. For those of you Herndon readers from my childhood, he is a lot like Tom McCammon as a kid. Imagine Tom as you read this story, and you've got a pretty good image of Mahammad. For the rest of you, just imagine THAT kid from elementary school. You know the one I'm talking about. Over the course of camp, I had developed a pretty good rapport with Mahammad and had gotten pretty good at managing his punkiness.

On one of the last days of camp Jaclyn, his group leader for the week, came to me and pulled me out of my class. She told me that Mahammad had asked to go home because he had a headache, but half an hour later, she saw him wandering around the school. Concerned, we went outside to look for him. When he saw us approaching, he started to walk away. I called out to him and told him I just wanted to talk to him. I asked him to come over to me. He paced a little and asked me, just me, to come to him instead. I looked at Jaclyn and walked over.

I told him I was worried and asked if he was ok. (Please note - this entire conversation was in Azeri.) He sadi yes he was fine, but he had to leave for the day. I asked what was wrong. He paced a little more, thought hard, and then asked me to promise mot to tell anyone. Deeply concerned now I said ok.

He told me he loved a girl in his group. (Another note - the polite way to say you love someone in azeri is "men bir qiz isteyirem." Which directly translates as "I want a girl." It's one of the weirdest things about this language that still cracks me up.) I asked what girl. More pacing. Some deep sighs. He placed his hand on his head and made me swear I wouldn't tell. I had to give this vow about 4 times before he finally told me her name. I won't reveal it - I did give my word - but she is a sweet little girl and VERY cute. His heart chose well.

As the conversation continued, he explained to me that he loved this girl and it was just too hard for him to stay in the class that day. At this point, my glee was getting a bit difficult to conceal in this - for him - very serious conversation. Swallowing a giggle, I told him that I understood. It was ok.

We talked a little more, then I extracted a promise from him to return to camp the next day, yet again swearing that his secret was safe with me, and sent him and his aching heart on their way home.

Stories from Camp... Buying Dirt...

One of the best ideas I think we had for camp was having the kids all plant flowers during Environmental Week. After all, the environment is about more than picking up trash and reusing stuff. Whitney's (one of my favorite PCVs who lives about an hour north of me) mom provided the seeds for us. Thanks Mrs.Bey! We decided part of the project would include making planters out of old soda bottles. The only other thing we had to do was get the dirt. Easy, right?

About a week before started camp Jaclyn and I headed to the bazar to procure the dirt. Her host sister, Hadija, came with us in case we needed help explaining what we wanted. We walked into the bazar and up to the row where all of the plants and flowers are sold. We got to the first xanim and asked about dirt. Here's how the conversation went...

"Dirt? Why do you want to buy dirt?"
"We have a project with students where we will plant flowers."
"I have flowers. Beautiful flowers. You can buy my flowers."
"No, thank you. We need dirt."
"Dirt? Why do you want to buy dirt?"


At this point the news that the Americans wanted to buy dirt, why would they want to buy dirt?, rippled down the bazar. Heads turned. Not whispered conversations about the strange Americans trying to buy dirt ensued. Hadija, pretty much mortified to be seen with us, disappeared to buy fruit.

We explained several more time why we needed dirt - not plants - until the xanim finally understood that we were adamant about the dirt.

"How much do you need?"
"A lot. Enough for about 150 small pots."
"150? No. I don't have dirt. Do you want some of my beautiful flowers?"

Accepting defeat, Jaclyn and I moved on. Since our attempt to buy dirt was the news of the bazar, we knew better than to try any of the other stalls. Frustrated, we moved on to our other errands and brainstormed about other ways to get the dirt.

As we headed to the school supply store, we passed a guy on the road who was also selling flowers and plants. After a pause and a short conversation about whether or not to try again (all the while, Hadija looked ready to bolt the minute it got embarrassing again), we bit the bullet and went up to him.

"Hello. How are you? We need dirt. Will you sell us dirt?"
"Dirt? Why do you want dirt? I have beautiful flowers. I can sell you flowers."
"No we need dirt. A lot of dirt for a project with students."
"You need dirt. I can get you dirt. How much dirt?"
"Enough for 150 small pots."
"Wow. That's a lot of dirt. How much will you pay?"
"Ummmmm. How much is it?"

Pause while he makes up an answer for our ridiculous request.

"18 manat."
"18 manat?"

Pause while we pretend to decide we have any idea whether or not this is a good price and factoring in that this is the only person willing to sell it to us.

"Sure. 18 manat is good. When can we get the dirt?"
"I have to go to the forest to get it. When do you want it?"
"Sure. Saturday. It will be here."
"Excellent. Thank you! See you Saturday."

Walking, feeling both elated that we got our dirt and skeptical that the dirt would actually be there on Saturday (which it was), we took a deep breath and checked one more thing off of our list.