Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Things I am Thankful For...

This past weekend was the Peace Corps Thanksgiving in Baku. A little slice of America - turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, shared with the people who have become my close friends. It was delicious and amazing and fun. And, not surprisingly, it made me miss home a lot.

It is weird to not be in America for Thanksgiving, with my family and our cheesy traditions and hectic schedule. I spent more time than necessary thinking about the things I am not going to have this year – watching the Macy's parade, green bean casserole, my Dad playing Christmas music after Thanksgiving dinner, and the feeling that the holidays are finally here.

I'm being proactive when I start to get sad, so rather than giving into my holidays-away-from-home-blues, I sat down and wrote a list of the things I am thankful for this year. I'm still a bit homesick, but I'm also a lot happier. Anyway, that list seemed like a good thing to share with you…

- My rad sitemates
- My down slippers and fuzzy socks
- That I don't have to get up at 6 a.m. on Friday to go sell shoes
- Highlights magazines from the Bergs
- That my counterparts are good
- The rare occasions, like this past weekend, when I get to sit instead of squat to go to the bathroom
- Care packages
- When I can have an entire conversation in Azeri – and understand most of it
- When I don't have to try to speak Azeri
- My super warm Peace Corps sleeping bag
- Hand Sanitizer
- Learning how to be simpler
- When it stops raining for a few days so my laundry can dry
- Scrabble and Skip-Bo
- When my host mom makes pumpkin plov
- Coffee
- The days (about twice a week now) that I get to shower
- That I live in an apartment, so my toilet and shower are inside, not outside
- That texting is so cheap and easy
- Books
- Random emails from people I haven't heard from in years
- The daily ego boost of walking into school – I'm still a superstar
- Letters from home
- The pictures that people email from home
- That you can always find a Snickers to satisfy the chocolate craving
- That I'm here, doing something so frickin' cool
- That I've stopped taking for granted what it means to be American
- The people here who have already become like family
- All of you at home who care about me and support me
And, of course,
- That I have a family that loves me and I love them.

And, so I have decided that I am incredibly lucky to be where I am, even if it is not that Thanksgiving I am used to. I will have lavangi and pumpkin pie with my sitemates on Thursday, and think of all of the things that I love – both here and at home. I hope that all of you reading this have a truly lovely holiday and have a list of Thankfuls that is just as good as mine. Happy Turkey Day!!!

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Ride Home...

This past Monday was my first time traveling any real distance in the AZ by myself. I was able to get to Baku with others, but the trip home was gonna be solo. A little daunting, but, for the most part, it was entirely uneventful. The marshuka was easy – I bought my seat, settled in between 2 azeri women (xamins), read my book, listened to the xanims talk about me, and took a nap – arriving 5 bumpy hours later at the Lankaran autovagzal.

Because I was coming from Baku, I had to deliver Double Cheeseburgers from McDonalds to my sitemates (a standing Lankaran rule – if one sitemate goes to the big city without the others, they must come back with Double Cheeseburgers for everyone). So, instead of going straight home , I headed to Tom’s house to distribute the goods. This is where my story gets interesting.

As soon as I got off the marshuka, a taxi driver came up and asked if I needed a ride. “Beli, bes nomra mektebe, zehmet olmasa” (yes, school number 5, please), which is right by Tom’s house. I got in the back, he put my bag up front, and we were off. Along the way, he started asking me questions Where are you from? America. Are you visiting? No, I live here. Are you a teacher? Yes, I’m an English teacher. Do you work at school number 5? No, I work at school number 10. My friend lives near school number 5.

Now, since I’ve gotten to site, I haven’t used my Azeri much at all. I speak English at school and my host family speaks English, so that is what is used mostly at home. So, I was feeling pretty proud about my conversation with the cabbie. That’s right, I thought, I CAN speak and understand this language. Woo Hoo!

A few more questions, then he started singing to me – Turkish pop. Eventually he turned on the radio, I guess as musical background for more questions. How old are you? 30. Are you married? (We get asked that A LOT here, so it wasn’t a big surprise) No. Why not? Because. Why? I don’t want to be. Why? Here I used an Azeri idiom – subayliq sultan liqdir (being single is like being a king). But having a man is good. Yes, but I don’t want that right now.

A few moments of quiet follow and he tells me he likes me very much. Then he tells me he loves me very much. Again, this happens all the time here. On a daily basis, I have students, teachers, and perfect strangers tell me that they love me. So, no big deal from the taxi driver, right?

Finally, we arrive at school number 5. I hop out and the driver gets out to give me my bag. First he tries to overcharge me for the ride, which I protested to. Then he knocks down the price to the regular price because he “loves me very much.” He reaches out to hand me my bag, then…dramatic pause… he kisses my neck. NOT COOL!!!! And – BLEGH!!!!!!! I proceeded to grab my bag and walk away as quickly as I could. And, again, blegh, blegh, blegh.

I have to tell you, I still shudder a little when I think about it. You know when you eat something really gross and you can still taste it weeks later when you remember? Kinda like that. On the flip side, though, when I think about it, I laugh a lot. I mean, really, a five minute ride and he loves me and kisses my neck?!? Come on! I could over react and take it really seriously and be freaked out, but I think the funny aspect of it is much better. I will tell you this though, I am not practicing my language skills on taxi drivers anymore!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Call Me Dr. Jane...

Part of being in the Peace Corps is about having crazy-new experiences. I knew that coming into this. Well, this one is so crazy-new, it gets a whole blog about it. And, to be perfectly honest, I kinda wish I hadn’t had this particular experience.

The other day, I was in my room, minding my own business, when my host sister knocked on my door. “Jane, do you know injections?” Not your typical question I grant you, but, I have become used to my host family thinking that I am somehow equipped with a kinds of medical knowledge and supplies. Plus, we have talked a bit about the fact that I am diabetic, so I thought it might be a question about that. “Yes,” I replied, “I have to do them everyday for my insulin. Why?”

She proceeded to tell me that my host mom needed a shot of her medicine because she wasn’t feeling well. Could I do it? I hesitated and tried to get out of it, “I can only jab a needle into a fleshy part of the body, like your arm or leg. I can’t do anything difficult.”

Side note – before you get too impressed with my Azeri skills, my host sister speaks English. I wouldn’t have made it passed “Jane, do you know” if it was in Azeri. Back to the story.

After a lengthy discussion, it was established that it wasn’t really a complicated procedure. I had my reservations, for sure. But, there was also the voice in my head asking who was I to not help a sick old lady just because the idea kinda sketches me out. I took a deep breath, thinking I really didn’t want to do it, and said ok.

So, they prepared the syringe and medicine. I washed my hands – if I’m gonna do, I had better be all hygienic and sterile about it. My host mom laid down on the couch, squeezed her eyes shut, pulled down her pants, and I jabbed the needle in. That’s right I gave my host mom a shot in the butt. In the butt. Sorry, I just had to say it twice.

Now, when I signed up for Peace Corps, I knew I was going to see and do things I would never have expected. I knew I would be acquiring all kinds of new skills for my resume. But one thing is for sure – I absolutely never thought derrier injections would be a part of that list. Do you think that go under special skills or work experience?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Descision time...

So, after my first two weeks of school, I had to make a decision about the classes I would be working with. Talk about terrifying! I mean, how do you choose between nine people who are all hoping and expecting that you will choose them? Add to that pressure the expectations of all of the students – everybody begged me to be in their class. And, of course, there is the fact that this choice affects the next two years of my life and could totally make or break my Peace Corps experience.... Yikes!

Over the course of those first weeks, I observed about a million English classes, and they covered the whole range of possibilities – the good, the bad, and the ugly. As I watched, I tried to take notes about the students, the teachers, and the grade level to try to make the best descision possible. I studied all of the teachers’ respective schedules. I looked through textbooks. I tried to talk to each teacher about their teaching style. And still, when it came down to deciding, it was virtually impossible.

My big question became – how do I decide? Do I choose the teachers I really like, or do I base my decision on the classes like the best, or, do I just choose the class times I like the most? And, do I have to work with the guy everyone else thinks I should work with because that is what’s expected – even if I don’t think we would work well together?

After spending a bit of time freaking out, I finally started making descisions. I don’t want to work with the 10th and 11th forms. In fact, I really like the younger forms – the kids seem sweeter and they are all closer together in ability. That makes the teacher part a bit easier – only a few of them teach 5th, 6th, and 7th forms. And, by a happy accident, it rules out the person I was concerned about having to work with – he only teaches the upper levels. So, then it is fitting the timetable puzzle together. And, like magic, the schedules of the 2 teachers I thought would be the best choice fit together perfectly. And, just as icing on the cake, with this schedule, the earliest lesson I have starts at 11:20am. Descion made!

I will be teaching 2 sections each of the 5th and 7th forms and 1 section of the 6th form. The teachers – Ruhanjis and Afag – are really excited to have me in their lessons. I think all of the others understood my descision. I hope I didn’t hurt any feelings. The students in my classes are, of course, thrilled. And, most importanty, I feel like I made the right choice. I am working with teachers who are eager to have me and work with me. It is the material I am most comfortable teaching. I get to teach students who are still interested and excited about learning English. And, I get to sleep in. Yup, I’m happy with my descision.


The first two weeks of school were my time to observe the classes, teachers, and students. Hopefully, that would be enough time to decide what classes and teachers I wanted to work with for the next two years. What a crazy interesting experience that turned out to be!

School here is six days a week, but, in my school, English classes are only Tuesday through Friday. Not a bad schedule at all. I can handle a four day work week. There are nine English teachers in my school. My goal was to observe as many of their lessons as possible. Every day, I went to five or six lessons – ranging from the fifth form (about 11 years old) to the eleventh form (about 16 years old).

As the kids get older, the split in skill level gets bigger and bigger. Teachers teach to the good students, dismissing the weaker ones. More than once I had a teacher tell me that this particular student or class was weak as a way of excusing the lesson. Hmmmm. Ok. I begin to understand some of the reasons it is important for me to be here.

Lessons begin with the teacher greeting the students, “Good morning/afternoon, students.” The kids, all standing at their desks, yell back, “Good morning/afternoon, teacher.” That was more than a little overwhelming the first time I experienced it. Then the lesson begins. The text books are gospel. Everything comes straight from the book. But, the thing is, the books are really hard to f ollow, and, in many cases, have information that is just incorrect. The kids learn vocabulary by writing the word in English – in cursive, by the way – then writing the transcription in the phonetic alphabet, then the transation in Azeri. Rote memorization is the primary method of learning. The textbooks all have these lengthy texts that the kids have to memorize and retell. When they are asked questions, they quote directly from the reading. I don’t think they actually understand what they are reading about and saying, but they sure can repeat it well.

I have mentioned that I am something of a superstar here – being the first American guest at the school is a very big deal. Being in the classroom has done nothing to change that status. In every lesson I watched, Miss Jane was the star attraction. The kids have been far more interested in me than in the lessons. The best example of this comes from an 8th form class I was watching. The kids did what every other class had been doing – talking about me in Azeri and trying to ask me questions. Pretty early on, I decided the way to handle this was to tell them they could ask me anything – as long as it was in English. They asked a few questions before their English skills ran out, and the teacher began the actual lesson. I was sitting quietly on the side of the room. I glanced around and noticed one of the boys surruptisciously taking pictures of me with his phone. That’s right, I have paparazzi. He saw me notice and tried to hide the camera. Ever the generous celebrity, I smiled and told him it was ok. He continued to snap photo throughout the rest of the class. Later, in the same class two kids gave me pens as a gift. A black one and a sparkly blue one. Nice. Fame really is both wonderful and terrible.

So, now, I must decide which of these classes I want to work with. Peace Corps requires me to teach about fifteen hours a week. For my own sanity, it is best if I work with only 2 or 3 teachers. It will be hard to tell the teachers I don’t choose that I can’t work with them. But, a decision must be made. Wish me luck!

One of the big things I got to see during my observation period was how much opportunity I have to make a difference here. Working with the teachers to make the lessons and classroom experience better. Working with the students to help even the “weak” ones feel like they can learn something and do well in school. Is that obnoxiously optimistic? I hope not.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The First Day of School

Saturday, September 15th was the first day of school – a holiday that is called The Day of Knowledge in Azerbaijan. I have spent two and a half months preparing for this moment, and here it finally was.

The first day starts with a ceremony, then, the kids go into classes. The ceremony takes place in the courtyard in front of the school. It started at 8 am. Which, in azertime, means it didn’t actually start until about 8:30.

I got to the school a few minutes early – dressed up in my pretty brown dress, hair done and makeup on to make a good first impression on the whole school. I was terrified as I walked up to the building! There were already several students and teachers milling around. There was a table with a microphone and giant speakers set up on the landing going into the school – the “stage” for our Day of Knowledge ceremony. I greeted the director – who knows no English. Our conversations get reduced to the few words we can communicate with in Azeri and lots of hand signals. Immediately, he had me sit down at the table on the “stage.” No hiding in the background for me, I was going to be up front and center, on display. Yikes!

A few of the teachers I had already met came up and said hello. We chatted a bit while we waited. Then, the director asked me to give a speech. A speech?!?! But, it is ok, they prepared us for this in training. We were told that we would probably be asked to give a short speech introducing ourselves. I can do this. Then I asked a few questions about the speech – just to introduce myself, right? “Oh, no!” they said. “We already have introduced you. No, give a speech like you do on the first day of school in America, congratulating everyone on the Day of Knowledge and the new school year.” Ummmmmmmmmmmmmm. Never done that before. Luckily, one of the English teachers coached me through what to say and we came up with a good speech – well, they pretty much told me what to say. And, even better, I got to give the speech in English and they would translate for me. Phew.

All of the students stand in lines by form (grade) in the courtyard. This is how they begin everyday of school. This day, they just had the pleasure of standing there for about 45 minutes longer. The itty bitty first formers stood off to the side – eagerly anticipating their first ever day of school. And, these little ones all had giant bouquets of Azer flowers – plastic, surrounded by fancy netting and foil and ribbons. In virtually every case, the bouquet was larger than the child. It was probably the cutest thing I have ever seen. At least in Azerbaijan.

Finally, the ceremony started. Music started playing to signify the beginning. The students were standing in their lines. I was sitting at the big front table next to the Director and several other teachers and staff members. Two of the students mc’d the thing. First, the national anthem. And, of course, again, I got the giggles. I can’t really explain why, but every time… Luckily, I controlled it enough that I don’t think anyone noticed. The Director stood up and said some things. Then some other teachers said some things. A group of the little first formers came up and recited a poem. Again, super cute.

And then, it was my turn to speak. I stood up. All of the students cheered. Seriously. I felt like a super star. And here’s what I said… “Salam (hello). On behalf of the Peace Corps and the United States of America, I would like to congratulate the Director, teachers, and students on the Day of Knowledge. I welcome you all to the first day of school and I wish you great success in the upcoming school year. Sag olun (thank you).” And they cheered again. Even louder. That’s right, I am a super star.

Now, I don’t know if I can do anything on behalf of the Peace Corps, or the United States, but I sure did it. In my defense, they made me – I tried to say it in a different way as we were planning it before the ceremony, but they kept making me say it that way. I know that’s not a good defense. Oh, well. If I get in trouble - Oops. Sorry.

They finished the ceremony, closed it with more music, and the students filed into school. There are no English classes on Saturdays, so I was free to go. I checked the timetable to find out when I had to come back the next week, then, headed home to change into jeans and relax. Ahhh.

There have been more than a few completely surreal moments here in the AZ, but this one takes the cake – so far. I felt like I was in some bizarre movie. And, I loved it. Next year I’m gonna do the speech in Azerbaijani. I guess I’ll have to learn how to say behalf in Azeri.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

I've Got Mail

Now that I am a real life PCV, I don't get the "perks" of being a trainee. Which means, Peace Corps can't recieve mail for me anymore. I will have a permenent address in a few weeks, which I will give out as soon as I get it. For now, though, all of my adoring fans who have been sending me letters and such, get to take a break.

I want to thank everyone who has sent stuff. You have no idea how cool it is to get mail here. A letter or postcard or package from home has turned around many a bad day. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I'm a PCV!

Well, it is official - I am a Peace Corps Volunteer. I know most of you thought that I have been a volunteer since the day I stepped foot in the AZ, but, technically, for the last 2 1/2 months, I have been a Peace Corps Trainee. That all changed on Wednesday, September 12.

The Swearing In ceremony felt a lot like high school graduation. It started with the Azeri and US national anthems. I have a confession. The Azeri national anthem ALWAYS makes me giggle. Maybe, by the end of 2 years it won't, but right now...

After the anthems came the speeches. First the Peace Corps Country Director. Then representatives from the three ministries we are working with - Education, Youth and Sports, and Economic Development. Each speech was given in either English or Azeri and then translated into the other language.

Finally the US Ambassador got up. She gave her speech in both Azeri and English. After her words of wisdom, the big moment was finally upon us. All 51 of us stood up, raised our right hands, and swore the oath to protect and defend the Constitution. One short paragraph and we were officially Peace Corps Volunteers.

I'm gonna be honest - I still can't believe that I am really a Peace CorpsVolunteer. As many of you know, I have been thinking and talking about this for years, I find it hard to believe that I am actually doing it. It is pretty great.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Trash Day...

Saturday might have been my coolest day in Azerbaijan so far. It was the first time since I have been here that I have really felt like I am in the Peace Corps. Training is super important, I know, but it gets a bit tiresome to be learning about doing something, rather than doing it. I am here to be doing good things and creating positive change for and with the community. On Saturday, we had a taste of that.

As I have mentioned, Azerbaijan has a huge pollution problem. I don't know where this information came from, but we have been told that the Caspian Sea is the most polluted body of water in the world and Sumgayit, the city we are living in during training, tops the pollution list worldwide as well. The whole place is filled with trash and litter. Plastic is a huge part of the problem. People throw their bottles wherever they may fall without a thought to it. Coming from the land of cleanliness and recycling, this has been more than a bit frustrating for all of us.

Shams, our training manager, organized a plastic pick up along the beach with a local organization. There is, apparently, a plastice recycling plant here in Sumgayit. So, Saturday morning, most of the trainees came out to pick up plastic. One of the coolest things was that is wasn't just us - about 30 Azeris came and joined us. There were a few current volunteers who came out, and several members of the Peace Corps staff - including Zoltan, our Contry Director.

We spent about 2 hours, walking along the beach, picking up plastic - bottles, bags, wrappers, you name it, if it was plastic, we picked up up. We filled a pretty big truck that was then sent to the recycling plant. It was definitely a spectator event - all kinds of Azeris watched the crazy Americans picking up trash. If you look closely in the background of this particular picture, you will see a few key members of our audience. Well, we were on the beach.

I can't begin to tell you all how refreshing and great it was to be actually doing something positive. Cheesy, I know, but true. Who knows if it will stick - with the Azeris who helped and the Azeris who watched. I hope - and believe - that the project will resonate with at least one of them, and maybe that can carry on and grow.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

My Future Home...

Ahhhh, lovely Lankaran. Last week I got to go spend a few days in the city that, in a few short weeks, will be my permanent home. It was wonderful!

My trip started with a 5 hour bus ride with the coordinator from my school in Lankaran along the coast of the Caspian Sea. Those of you who know me well won't be surprised to hear that for me, it was basically a 5 hour nap. And that is never a bad thing!

When we arrived, the director of my school met us at the bus stop and took us to lunch. It was a beautiful spot, right near the sea, but in we were surrounded by trees. My coordinator and director pointed out the Iron Trees that are so famous. They are really cool looking. Over lunch, we got to talk a bit. A lot of translation was required, but it was very interesting. I asked a few questions about the school and a lot of questions about the town.

After lunch, they took me home to my host family. I will be living in a fifth floor apartment - I think it must be my due after complaining so much about the stairs to Kara's fourth floor dwelling back in Herndon. I have lovely room - which they decorated to welcome me. Balloons and posters and confetti. My days of the western style toilet are sadly over. Over the new few years, I will come to love the squat toilet, I am sure. At least the combination of a million steps and squat toilet will give me great leg muscles.

My host family is lovely. I will be living with a host mother and 3 sisters. One of my sisters has a little boy - about 10 years old. I am thrilled to be living - basically - with all women. It is a much more comfortable situation. They are all so excited to have me as part of the family. Two of my sisters speak fluent English, one of them has been to the states 4 times. Ahhh. How refreshing to have someone who kind of understands me. She even offered me iced tea - most Azeris think adding ice to tea is close to sacriledge. My host mother and the other sister don't speak English, but they are trying very hard to make me feel comfortable and to learn English and teach me Azeri. My little host nephew knows one or two words in English. All day Friday, he was walking around singing Happy Birthday - mostly because it is one of the few things he knows in English.

My family took me to the Heydar Aliyev Memorial Park Wednesday evening. This is the spot for summer evenings. Familys all come out and walk around and chat and watch people. It is one of the few places women and kids can socialize, so it is very popular. The ladies all get very dressed up - to sit in the darkened park. I felt a bit like I was on show, the new American. I have gotten used to that feeling in the past few months. But it was nice, we had popcorn, strolled around. I watched all of the Azeris as much as they watched me. It's only fair, you know.

I spent Thursday morning walking around town with my host sister. She showed me where to shop, took me to the history museum. What an interesting experience that was. We walked into an old house where all of these artifacts are kept. No problem taking as many pictures as you want. You want to touch the stuff? No worries. I had a definite moment of pause, wondering what my mom and all of the lovely people at PRD would think of me as I stood there, holding a pot dating from 1310, carefully inspecting it and feeling every line and crack.

Thursday evening I got to hang out with my future sitemates. Ashely, Tim, and Tom are all Community Econmic Development volunteers who have been in Lankaran for a year. They invited Joyce and me over for dinner to welcome us to Lankaran - mexican food and margaritas. Heaven! It will be really nice to have a group of other Americans around - especially if they can keep plying me with good food and drinks!

Joyce lives right across the street from me. If I were to shout out my window, she would hear it. That is awesome. I really think it will be crucial for my well being to have American friends nearby.

I got to visit my school on Friday. I met one of the English teachers and she showed me around. They are really excitedto have me. As Peace Corps keeps telling us, they have been waiting for at least a year for a volunteer. Of course they are excited! My school is 3 stories high, with 6 different English classrooms. I cannot wait to meet all of the English teachers and figure out who I will be working with. So far, everyone seems great. The first day of school is September 15. That is going to be an intense experience, I am quite sure.

Friday afternoon, Joyce's host family took us to do a bit of sight seeing. We drove around the city and went to the nearby hot springs. The hot springs are located in a place called Istisu - which translates to hot water. Appropriate. We had tea nearby, surrounded by more Iron Trees. We drove passed one of the famous teas plantations. Joyce and I took pictures like a couple of tourists - forgetting that we will be living there for the next two years. Plenty of time for sight-seeing. But still, there is something about that first moment of discovery.

Saturday morning was time to head back to the training community. A little bittersweet. Nice to be going back to friends I had been missing, but sad to leave a place I like so much. I am so excited about living there for the next 2 years. The town is lovely, the people are great, and I and really looking forward to working and living there. I know thare are going to be times that are really hard and that all I want is to be somewhere else, but that is the way life goes. Right now, I am thrilled at the prospect of my future life. The next two and a half weeks can't go fast enough, I am so eager to be out of training and finally really living my life as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

30 in the AZ...

I have to say, I think my 3oth birthday was quite possibly the best ever. I mean really, how many people can say they started their 30th birthday on a bus... with the Talush Mountains on one side and the Caspian Sea on the other. A pretty great way to start, I think. So different for my past 29 birthdays.

My birthday was honestly just great. A scenic busride to start the day. Lunch with friends when we arrived in town - nachos and beer. Really, how can you go wrong? Then to the Dove to celebrate with as many people as possible. We hung out, caught up on our site visits (I'll write about that in another posting), and just had fun.

Afterwards, a few of us went to the beach and relaxed. It was pretty dark by the time we got to the beach, lit only by the moonlight and trash fires burning in the distance. Ahhh, trash fires. Almost romantic, really. It was nice to relax, the waves lapping on the shore. In the dark, you can almost forget how dirty the Caspian is.

The next day, my language cluster got me a giant Azer birthday cake. The frosting had glitter and looked uber-chocolatey, but the taste wasn't quite right. Oh well. Next year I'll get my family to send a box of Duncan Hines to make. They sang Happy Birthday and we had cake and (shhhhh) champagne. My mom had sent some candles and party favors, which were a big hit! It was silly and lovely. And I got some great gifts - toilet paper, gaudy azeri jewelry, and a good notebook. Honestly, the tp is probably the best birthday gift I have ever gotten!

I spent a lot of time on the 5 hour bus ride - and over the course of the day - reflecting about this particular birthday. 30 is a pretty big number to be dealing with, you know. I think that warrants some serious reflection. I thought about who I am, where I am, and what I am doing. The conclusions I came to... I am on the coolest adventure of my life. I am finally pushing myself to follow the path I want, rather than the one I was on. I am happier than I have been in years. And I am on the other side of the world. I don't think I could be in a better place for this momentous occaision. I am so lucky to be who I am where I am right now. My birthday wish is that I spend the rest of my life on this path, doing things that are amazing and interesting and make me really happy to be me.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Site Announcements...

So, yesterday was the big day. After 8 weeks of impatient anticipation, the TEFL (Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) trainees found out where we will be living for the next 2 years. The few days leading up to it felt like waiting for Christmas as a little kid - excited, a little nervous, very hopeful. I was probably among the most eager children - filled with energy, constantly running to the window to look for Santa and Rudolph (metaphorically speaking, of course). And finally, at about 3:45, the moment was here.

After a few announcements, Peace Corps staff gave each of us a folder. We had to wait until all of them were distributed to open them together. When we were told to, we all opened our folders and discovered our destinies. We glanced at the top of the page, and then there was much running around to see where everyone else was going. A little chaotic, definitely, but really cool. I don't know if anyone took the time to read the description of their site right then. Later, as things settled down, we read over the information Peace Corps gave us about our permanent sites.

After the initial reveal and excitement, they brought us all up to the front of the room by region - south, north, etc. We placed our pins in the big map to show where we are going. Then we got to chill and have some cake. We spent time finding out - again - where our friends are going, reading over our infomation, getting to chat with our future sitemates (if we have them - I do), talking to staff and current volunteers about our sites and schools and host families, and, of course, eating cake.

And so now, to tell you all where I will be going come September. Drumroll please... Lankaran. Lankaran is in the south, right on the Caspian Sea. If you are looking at a map of Azerbaijan, look at the bottom right, you'll find me pretty easily. From everything I have heard, I am incredibly excited to be going there. Current volunteers and Azeri staff members have told me a lot about the region, and it is supposed to be absolutely beautiful. I think the best way to tell you about it is to share with you the description that Peace Corps gave me.

"Lankaran is situated on the crossing of the caravan ways. There are a lot of historical, archeological, and architectural monuments in the region, such as the mausoleum of Sheikh Zahid, the remains of the Belabus fortress, and the city tower. Lankaran is called the Pearl of Azerbaijan. The population is over 100,000 people. Lankaran is one of the oldest towns in Azerbaijan. The city is rather recent, dating from the 16th century. Lankaran was, for a long time, the capital city of the Talysh Khanlighi. The Lankaran region is an important producer of spring and winter vegetables - rice, grapes, tobacco, citrus trees, and oak woods trive in the warm climate. However, the main and most famous crop is tea, which is produced at local tea factories. Other industries are centered on food processing, furniturem silk, wood, and fine carpets. The region has a vast area of national parks, where a varied flora and fauns is preserved. Kizilagach national park hosts over 250 kinds of plants, 30 species of fish, and more than 220 kinds of birds. Hirkan national park is famous for its iron trees, "Demir-agach"."

For thos of you internet junkies who are interested in researching more (Shannon, Mom, Kate, etc...) a nice website to start at is

My school is pretty big - over 1100 students and 140 teachers. I will meet the coordinator from my school this week and get to learn a lot more about it. It should be super interesting.

Next week, we go to visit our sites. My site mate - Joyce - will be going with me. I will get stay with my new host family (who I will live with for the first 6 months in site), and go to my school, and meet the AZ4 volunteers who are already there.

I am, of course, excited and nervous - just like when I was preparing to come to Azerbaijan. At least this time I can have a basic conversation in the language!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Why'd the Chicken Cross the Road?

There is a little flock of chickens that hangs out on the road on my way to school. I'm sure they are destined to be someone's dinner, but right now, they are yet another part of my cultural education. That's right, yet another of my suburban misconceptions shot to hell... Chickens actually do cross the road!

I always thought it was a ridiculous idea, invented for the sake of the joke. I mean, really, why would a chicken cross the road? Don't they just hang out in coops all day?

Imagine my surprise when I witnessed - and do witness on a daily basis - that chickens do indeed cross the road. And they don't look both ways, like a good little chicken should, before they cross. And they definitely should given the way people drive here! They just run out, willy nilly, without a care as to what might be coming at them.

And so, now, to answer the timeless question - why'd the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side, of course. But there is more to it. They are not just getting to the other side - they are racing to the other side. Everyday, my neighborhood chickens are running back and forth, braving the wild marshuka drivers, racing to win the great chicken race. I can only wonder what the grand prize is.

My Biggest Challenge...

I have been debating about writing this here - whether I wanted to share this, whether I should share it. I fianlly decided to do it. What it comes down to is this, my struggles are as big a part of this as the wildly cool things. If I am going to accurately portray this experience for my many fans, then I need to share everything.

As most of you know, I am a strong, independant woman. My parents worked very hard to help Kara, Kate, and me become confident, self-assured women who can do anything for ourselves, with little help. We are respectful. open, and friendly. We can talk to anyone and we look everyone in the eye. The world is an open book for us. We can live on our own, buy anything we want, and go anywhere we want.

How surreal for me, then, to be living in a place where the opposite is the norm. Everyday, I am faced with making choices that are contrary to my instincts. At home, I walked down the street with my head held high. looking at everyone I passed and smiling. Here, as I walk down the street, I keep my head down, very careful not to draw attention. I can speak to other women and smile at them - although the smile is something somewhat foreign to them. But, I can't look at men or speak to them, and I definitely can not smile. If I were to do these things, it would be viewed as an invitation for more.

I am fiercely independent - sometimes to a fault. At home, I could take care of myself. I didn't need help or protection. I have never asked a man to walk me home - until I got here. One evening, my cluster was meeting to do some work. Afterwards, we got ice cream. Sasha and Whitney headed home together, in the opposite direction of where I needed to go, leaving me with Erik and David. I would have been strolled off on my own, until I looked around and saw nothing but men - hanging out, squatting on the corners, spitting sunflower seeds. It took a lot, but I humbled myself and asked one of the boys to walk me home. I could handle anything on my own, but the image of protection was necessary. Since then, I have lost the shame in asking for an escort. Anytime I head out after about 7 pm, I ask one of the boys to walk me home.

I am lucky - because I have dark hair and dark eyes, I blend a little better and don't get as much unwanted attention as some of my friends. Oh, I still get the stares, the teeth sucking, and the calls of "hello, hello." But when I compare that to my friend who was asked how much she is, simply because she has light hair and blue eyes, I think I get off pretty easy.

One of my favorite things to do in the states was to go to a coffee shop and sit and read a book. First of all, there are no coffee shops here. Setting that fact aside, as a woman, I cannot go to a restaurant - or really anywhere - alone. There are chay-hannas (tea houses) all over the places, but they are absolutely off limits to women. Here, in the AZ, women socialize in the home. There is no such thing as going out to eat with girlfriends.

I, like many among my family and friends, have a great appreciation for alcoholic beverages. A nice glass of wine after a tough day or a cold beer on a hot summer day. Well, that is a vice I have had to give up here. Women don't drink here. Older women can buy vodka or beer or whatever for their husbands, but if one of us were to walk into a store and buy alcohol, it would be quite innappropriate - and shameful. At dinner at a friend's house recently, her host father was pouring shot after shot of vodka for the American men, while we girls quietly sipped our tea. I honestly didn't want to be doing shots of vodka, but is was so frustrating to sit and watch, not even being asked if we wanted to participate, simply because of our gender.

I am finding different ways to handle this particular stress. One of my program managers, Gulnara, gave me some really good advice. She helped me to remember that this is just temporary. I remind myself of that a lot. I have discovered that when I get annoyed, walking down the street, I start to hum the song my mom used to sing when she was losing patience with my sisters and me. Inevitably, I think of my mom and my dad, and how proud everyone at home is of me, and I'm ok again.

It is interesting - I struggle with this on a daily basis - I think most of the Americans do. There are times when I feel like a shell of myself. But then there is this - this week I had two seperate conversations - one with my mom, and one with a friend from home. They both said that I sounded happier and more like myself than I have in years. And the thing is, that is true. As hard as the hardest parts can be, I am more at peace with myself and what I am doing than I have been in years. And that is good.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Thought for the Day...

Seeing as I don't get online very often, I guess this should really be the thought for the week! Anyway, here's the latest ponderance.

What man thought sucking his teeth was an attractive way to get a woman’s attention… and how did he convince an entire culture to do it?

Saturday, August 4, 2007

The walk home from the bus stop...

AzerbaiJane's Thought for the Day

Does anyone remember Jack Handy's Deep Thoughts? Well, here is my attempt - not nearly as witty as Jack's, but, then, I don't have the SNL staff writing for me. Mine are merely interesting things, challenges, etc. that I have encountered. Here's the first...

How do you explain to people who live in a country where an expensive meal costs 1 manat, 50 qepik ( about 2 dollars) and they live on about 5 manat a day, that in America it is really hard to exist on a salary of $30,000 a year?

Summer school...

This week was the first week of the TEFL (Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) trainee practicum… summer school. We spilt up into pairs and are teaching English to groups of Azeri kids. Each of us teaches half of the lesson, for three weeks. It is designed to give us some or more - depending on the trainee - teaching experience, and to give us a glimpse of an Azeri classroom.

My group of kids ranges in age from 11 to 13. These kids all had to apply to be in summer school. This, already, puts us in an ideal school situation – all of these kids want to be here and want to learn English. Like school back home, that will not be the case in the real classroom. That’s ok by me, though. I am definitely fine with easing into the system.

The first day was rocky – as all first days are. Whitney (my teaching partner) and I were somewhat surprised to discover that the students knew a lot more English than we expected. Suddenly, teaching the “hello, my name is…” seemed a bit elementary. Stuff we had planned to take 10 minutes took 5, so by the end of the first half, we were almost all the way through our entire lesson. Luckily, we were able to come up with a bunch of stuff to add so the kids stayed interested and involved.

Since that day, we have understood a bit better how our time will flow and the level of our kids. And we’ve found ways to make the stuff that some of them already know interesting for all of them. By the end of the week, we were able to have really fun, interesting lessons that kept the kids involved – and the two of us not floundering and wondering what to do next!

One of the activities we did was to give the kids English names. We wrote a bunch of names down on pieces of paper and the kids chose their names at random. We tried to get simple, somewhat classic names. We ended up using the names of most of my aunts and uncles. And bizarrely, the kids seem to embody the personalities of those aunts and uncles. Seeing my sweet Aunt Mary and my Uncle Tom’s strong personality in little Azeri children is more than a little surreal.

I am already starting to learn a bit about Azeri classrooms – and how I can positively affect them. I was told that most teachers here teach to the “good” kids. There are one or two kids who are eager and interested – their hands shooting up before the question is asked, shouting “muellim, muellim (teacher, teacher).” Apparently, most teachers focus on these kids and the others get somewhat forgotten. In my summer school classroom, I definitely have a couple of those kids. What has been really fun is to help the other kids get involved. The first day, the three “muellim” kids were the only ones to raise their hands. By the end of the week, all of the kids were raising their hands and trying to get called on. My absolute proudest moment of this week was seeing little Kate – the shyest, quietest girl in the class – jump up and down with her hand in the air to guess when we played Eye Spy.

I am so glad to be finally starting what I’m supposed to be doing while I am here. This week went a lot faster than the previous weeks have gone, and I am feeling really proud and excited about the work I am doing. I can’t wait for next week.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Picture Pages...

This is Gala Alta - an ancient castle on top of a mountain that we hiked to a few weeks ago. It was amazing! There are parts of this country that are absolutely breathtaking. I thought I would show you one.

I added a few more pictures to old blogs, so check them out, too. I hope you like them!

I watched my Nana make a mattress...

There are a very few time here when you can convince yourself that you are somewhere similar to home. Walking by the sea (if you let yourself forget it is the Caspian), eating watermelon and corn on the cob, talking with your American friend outside of the school. And then there are those times that you absolutely know that you are not in Kansas anymore – and Toto would be a stray dog that the kids throw rocks at. Some of these experiences are hard and somewhat heartbreaking (for example, the Toto reference), some are so amazingly cool that you just have to stop for a moment, in awe of the world you are currently living in.

A few weeks ago, I woke up to the sound of a bat or stick or something swinging. I looked out my window to see my nana, down below, beating a pile of wool with a stick. Okaaaay, I thought, this is new. So, I went about my routine, and when I headed off to school, I got to stop, ask about it (with translation help from my host brother), and take pictures. My host brother explained to me that every summer women do this. They are either making new mattresses or cleaning the old ones. They take apart the mattresses, wash out the wool and clean it, and put it all back together again.

Through out the day, I got to watch the various stages if this process. And, several times since that first experience, I have gotten to witness this routine as my host family gets all of their mattresses clean.

It starts with taking apart the mattress and soaking the wool. For a new mattress, they buy the wool at the wool market. They wash it out, then dry it in the sun. The wool beating is the next step in this process. They beat it and shake it out to get all of the bits and pieces of dirt out. This takes hours! Nana started pretty much when then sun rose and kept going until 9 or 10 am. Then the wool is gathered and taken back inside (or to wherever each particular family does this).

It is spread onto what is, basically, a giant sheet. The sheet is folded over and stitched together. Then some seams are put it. Again, this takes an incredibly long time. Nana started this part in the late afternoon and was just finishing around 10 pm. After that, a cover is put on. It is a much thinker fabric, and nicer. Most of the covers in my family seem to be a satin-y material. I have seem others in other houses. The mattress is slid into the cover, and then the cover is stitched together.

My nana is my favorite person in my host family. Her laugh is a cackle, and I just crack her up. She was cracking jokes as she was going through this whole process, and even paused to look up and smile for my photos. At one point she paused, sat down, and said how angry she was because the mattress was such hard work. Then she smiled, cackled a bit, and went right back to it.

Saturday, July 28, 2007


I have finally figured out how to get my pictures posted!!!! All it took was Carolyn, one of my favorite people here, just reminding me to have patience. It just takes longer here. So, anyway I have added a few pictures to some older posts and will add more!!!!

Oh, Happy Day!

I received a package from my family yesterday. It was, seriously, one of the most exciting things that has happened to me! In it, they included some things I had forgotten when I left, some things I had asked for, and some little things to make me happy. They seriously did a great job.

One of the thing I had forgotten was flip flops. Now, those of you who know me well know that I basically can’t survive without flip flops. O.k., that is an exaggeration, but you get the point. In my glorious package was not one, but two pairs of my favorite flips. Yahoo!!!!!!

So, today, for the first time since I’ve been in the AZ, I got to wear my flip flops. I honestly think it changed my entire demeanor. Having my flip flops (shap shap in Azeri) on my feet made me feel more like me than I have in a while. I was lighter, more confident, more content, and I think I had a bit of an epiphany, all because of my flip flops.

Being new in a culture can be tough. Trying to assimilate and be accepted by the community makes you incredibly self conscious and aware. We received a lot of guidance about being culturally appropriate. On a normal day, walking down the street, I keep my head down, especially when there are men around. I don’t smile. Walking in to shops, I say a quite “salam”, tell them what I need, pay, and leave.

Today, on the magical flip flop day, I rebelled a bit from my hyper-awareness of being culturally appropriate. I held my head up as I walked down the street. I was still careful not to make eye contact with men – I don’t really want them to make inquires about how much I cost – but I did look at the women I passed. And I smiled and said “salam.” And they smiled back and said “salam” back. And tried to have more a conversation than “I need toilet paper” with the salesperson at the shop. It was all lovely!

I was proud to be me – perky Jane – and I was happy to be walking down the street in my village and I was confident that I can totally do this. I will admit, I was having a bit of a hard time for the past week or so. But what I remember today, is that I am still me, just in a different world. And AzerbaiJane is a pretty cool person to be.

Laundry Day...

I have been doing my own laundry since I was relatively young. It is not a particularily challenging thing to do in the States. I loved the luxury of throwing my clothes in the machine and turning it on, then repeating the process to dry it. It is not quite the same story in Azerbaijan.

Laundry is all done by hand here. Even if a family has a washing machine, it is typically ancient and they never use it. When I had been here about a week, I asked my host mom to show me how to wash my clothes. I can only imagine what went through her head – how can this full grown woman not know how to do laundry? I tried to explain that we do it all with a machine back home – my guess is that conversation only added more layers to her image of my bourgeois American lifestyle.

Her version of teaching me was letting me watch while she did it. Laundry is done in the bathroom (hamam). You get boiling hot water, pour it is a large bowl, add very strong detergent, and toss in a few articles of clothing. Side note – one of the very popular brands of laundry detergent is called Barf. For real. I took a picture. Anyway - laundry. You start with your whites and work your way up to the darkest colors. The detergent is very strong, so if you don’t, all of you light colors will turn grey or blue. And then you scrub. The Azeri women have this process of scrubbing their knuckles against each other, with the fabric in between. It is really rough on your hands. There is a separate bucket filled with cold water that you throw the clothes in to rinse. You rinse then out, and when you are done, you head off to dry them.

Every apartment has a line stretching from their window. The clothes get clipped on and hang to dry. My first laundry experience, I was a bit wary of having my delicates put out on display for the world to see. So, I gathered them and hung them in my room. The rest of my clothes were carefully hung on the line stretching from the kitchen window. Then I went for a walk with my host sister. Apparently, my choice of keeping my privates private didn’t quite fly with my host mom, because when I got back, she had retrieved them from my room and hung them out with the rest of the clothes. Ahhh, well.

I was allowed to do it for myself this past laundry day. Who would have guessed that that would be exciting for me? But, let me tell you, it is hard work. My host mom and Nana helped me hang it on the line. Definition of helped – let me watch them hang it on the line. By the end of the summer, my goal is to be allowed to be able to do the whole process by myself. It’s the little things, really.

I learned my lesson and am well past the underpants embarrassment. I even joined in while Nana cackled with glee at all of my bright pink, striped, orange, polka dotted, and generally decorative underwear dancing in the wind.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Day in the Life of AzerbaiJane...

On my weekly phone call with the Flegal family, they asked what my average day is like. The answer to that question seemed like a good idea for a blog post. So, here you go!

I get up at about 7:30 every morning. Actually, I wake up when the neighborhood rooster starts chattering, well before the time I actually get out of bed. Side note – the suburban girl in me fully believed that roosters crow just once in the morning, when the sun rises. For the other suburbanites out there, that is a myth. The reality is that roosters crow ALL day, and sometimes in the middle of the night. The one who hangs out in my neighborhood is particularly chatty, starting well before the sun rises and going all day long. Anyway, back to the story. So, I get out of bed. I spend sometime in the peace of my room before I head out into the apartment. I go to the bathroom, brush my teeth and wash my face and go to the kitchen for breakfast.

I am lucky in my food – my host family asked me what I liked and got it for me. Other trainees are not so lucky. The only thing I really have to complain about food-wise is the monotony. It is very routine. My breakfast consists of a cup of instant coffee (which is highly coveted among my peers. Most of my fellow trainees only get tea.), a hard boiled egg, bread, and fruit salad. The fruit salad is another thing that makes most of the Americans super-jealous.

After breakfast, I head off to school. My walk takes about 10 minutes, maybe a little less. There are 2 little girls who join me along the way. Every morning, they run up and say, “Hello Jane! What is your name?” Every once in a while, there is a “how are you” thrown in, but they don’t have much more English than that. It is pretty exciting for me, because as my Azeri skills are slowly increasing, I can understand more of what they say. Today I was able to ask how old they are – and understand when the told me they were 10 and 11.

Language lessons go from 9 to 1, with a dondurma (ice cream) break in the middle. Our classes are fun and intense at the same time. It is like a high school or college language class in high speed. In one week we covered present, past and future tenses. There are days that I feel super confident about it, and then there are those other days… Luckily, right now, there are more of the confident days than the ones where I am certain I won’t ever get it.

So, after language class, I go home for lunch. Lunch includes bread, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, some other kind of salad, and some kind of meat – this week it has been sausages. Azeri sausages are not like American sausages. I had dreams of kilbasa or smoked sausage links or even a hot day. Nope. Think giant Vienna sausages – you know, those ones that come in a can – and you are pretty close. My host mom knows I love fruit, so there is always a selection of fruit with lunch. And tea. There is tea at every meal and tea breaks in the morning and afternoon. Again, I am lucky, because my family doesn’t force me to drink tea at every meal. Usually, I skip the tea at lunch.

My afternoons are varied. Often, we have Peace Corps training sessions called TDLAs. Side note – Peace Corps has an acronym for everything. TDLA stands for Trainee Directed Learning Activity. After 4 hours of language and a big lunch, they can be hard to sit through. The information is certainly important and valid, but those days just get really long.

Other days we have our afternoons somewhat free. Naptime is often a part of those days. Afternoon naps are a big part of Azeri culture – finally a cultural adjustment that is easy for me! Other things include trips to the bazaar for some shopping and the internet cafĂ©. We’ve gone and hung out at the beach – which can be quite surreal when you realize that you are walking along the Caspian Sea. I mean, really, what American social studies kid thinks they are going to spend a summer hanging out by the Caspian?

Dinner is basically a repeat of lunch. Sometimes lunch is the leftovers from the night before, sometimes dinner is the leftovers from lunch. A lot of the meat here kinda freaks me out, so I don’t eat much of it. There is something about walking through the outdoor bazaar and seeing slabs of meat and hunks of animals – there was a lovely selection of sheep heads one day – sitting out in the hot sun, flies flitting to and fro, that just kind of turns me off the idea of a big slice of beef or mutton or chicken for supper.

After dinner, there are a variety of activities I do. Most nights include some intensive studying. I have heard my host family laugh as they walk by my room and hear me saying random words over and over again. When I think about it, if I heard someone saying egg, egg, egg, egg over and over again, I would have to laugh too.

I try to spend some time with my host family every night. The point of living with a host family is to experience that part of the culture, so I’m making an effort. Some nights I sit in the “garden” with my host sister, Aysel. We played some tennis-like game. One night Aysel, Elshad (one of my host brothers) and I played checkers. Azeri rules are different than American rules, though, so I lost. Big time. Last night we went down to the sea.

My favorite nights are Friday and Saturday nights. That is when Aska Sogun is on. Aska Sogun is a Turkish soap opera/miniseries. The Azeris are absolutely crazy about it. Kids wear t-shirts and almost everyone watches it. Friday and Saturday, my host mother, nana, Aysel and I sit around the TV and watch it. Sometimes Elton (the other host brother) comes and watches. They all “tsk tsk” when a character does something to disapprove of. It is definitely watered down compared to American soaps – it’s no Days of Our Lives – but it is still a good dose of drama. And the best thing about it is that even though I have NO idea what they are saying, I completely understand the plot line.

At some point in the evening I take my bucket bath – I am getting quite adept at it! After that, I head into my room for some quiet time to myself. That is my favorite time of day. This culture doesn’t really have “alone time”, but for me it is a much needed part of my day. Often I will study more, but most nights, I write in my journal and read something that has nothing to do with Azerbaijan or Peace Corps.

By bedtime, my room is a cool 80 degrees – practically a refrigerator, really. So, I settle in, turn off the light and head to sleep, knowing that in a few hours the rooster will greet me with a new day.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

PCV visits

In the middle of the AZ…

This past weekend we all went to the reyons (regions) and visited current Peace Corps volunteers. I cannot begin to tell you how wonderful an experience that was. But I’ll try. That is what a blog is for, isn’t it?

We were all split up and went all over Azerbaijan. There were 8 of us in my group, visiting 6 volunteers in the same site. We left on Saturday, packed like sardines on a marshuka, for a bumpy, six hour, unairconditioned bus ride. Good thing I remembered to take some Dramamine. Note to mom – send more!

The point of the visit was for us to see what it is really like at site. Our volunteers were supposed to show us around their community and the work they are doing there. I got to take part in an English conversation club with 4 Azeri girls. They asked us questions and we played games like Simon Says. Super fun! Later, we met with Ina’s (my host volunteer) counterpart at school. We talked a bit about her school and working with a volunteer. We got a glimpse of the relationship between a volunteer and her counterpart and realized how important a role that person will have in our lives in a few months.

We also did a bit of touristing. We saw a WWII memorial. It was a little surreal to be looking at the Soviet version of something which I have seen so many western versions of. We went to a tower that had been built in 1322. There used to be tunnels to Baku and Turkey and somewhere else under it. Walking around the village, we passed the Heydar Illeyev museum – apparently a standard in every town. He is close to a god here.

We were in the center of Azerbaijan, but the current volunteers made us feel like we were at home. They plied us with American food and beer. We got to talk in our loud American voices and laugh our loud American laughs. We didn’t have to worry about being culturally appropriate every second of the day. We got to hang out with people who have been through what we are going through – and survived! We had burritos and pizza and corn on the cob and cereal. Honestly, I think it was the closest to heaven I’ve ever been.

I think the site visits inspired all of us to get through the long months of training – it is a different, mostly better world once we get to our permanent sites. We all came back refreshed and excited about the future. Sometimes, getting to see what is at the end of the tunnel helps you get through it. In this case, it definitely did.

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Baijan...

The Biajan…

So, I’m finally here and started. We arrived in Azerbaijan a week ago. What an intense week it has been…

Peace Corp staff and current volunteers met us at the airport – after about 25 hours of travel time. We immediately got on a bus to go north for Orientation. What was supposed to be a 3 hour bus ride turned into a much longer bus ride. The scenic view as we drove up was astounding. It is a completely different world. ClichĂ©, but true. Driving through the towns, there are little herds of sheep, cows crossing the road, and lots of people. We drove through some of the oil fields… spectacular in its their own way.

Once we got to the Komplex, we checked in, picked up paper work, and settled in for a few days. The days that followed were orientation – more meetings. Health, security, culture, host families, gender roles, PC policies, and language. We had lots of time at night to hang out and look around the complex and play. One night Flora – the Language Coordinator – and the LCFs – language and culture facilitators (Areri’s who stay with us for the next 3 months and show and teach us everything) – taught us Aerbaijani dancing. It was hysterical and fabulous and lovely. The Azeris looked awesome dancing, the Americans, not so much.

On Saturday, orientation ended and we headed back south to our training communities and to move in with our host families. I think everyone was a little subdued with nerves and excitement. The bus dropped us off at our communities and we were picked up by members of our family.

My family is lovely. I am staying with my host mother (ana in Azerbaijani), father (ata), two brothers (gardash), sister (baji), and grandmother (nana). Hospitality is VERY important here – as a guest, they are constantly trying to take care of me. I get a seat of honor in the living room – people will even get up and move if I come in the room. I am always being offered food. The first night, my host brother was asking what I liked. He speaks a little English, but it is still challenging. I struggled to say the few Azeri food words I knew – bread (chorek), cucumber (xiyar), tomato (pomidor), water (su), then he asked about things in English. He asked if I like tea – yes (beli), ice cream – beli!!, and chocolate – beli!!!! Every night since then, they have gotten me a chocolate bar. I am not able to do my own dishes, or even take my plate to the sink if my host mother is around. They are very interested in me, why I am here, and Americans in general. I have used pictures to explain a little about my family and friends – I even have a picture of Payless. Our communications can get comical as we try with our limited skills in each other’s language.

I am living in a small community near the Caspian Sea. If any of you have been to Eastern Europe, you can probably imagine what my post-communist town looks like. For those of you who haven’t, think WW2 ghetto and you are pretty close. Nicer than that, but close. I am living in a tiny apartment with my host family. I have my own room – they all share the other bedroom. There is a living room, a little kitchen and a bathroom. The toilet is a separate room from the sink and tub. I am lucky – I have a western style toilet with decent water pressure. I get to take a bucket bath. They light the water heater for me – it is too dangerous for me to do myself ( their words, not mine), then the water pours into a bucket and I use a scoop to pour it over myself. Needless to say, it has taken some getting used to, but I think I’m getting the hang of it.

Language classes started Monday. I am inching along, retaining a little more each day. I am starting to be able to understand a few words when my family is talking, and can say more to them each day. It is frustrating to need help from Muzaffar, my LCF, to do just about anything in the community. I feel like I need a translator and a babysitter just to be able to get lunch. I was so proud to be able to buy a bottle of water on my own today! It certainly puts things in perspective.

I have to say, this place is absolutely amazing. The experiences I have had in just one week make it feel like I have been here an eternity – in a good way. I have only begun to touch on them here. More soon…


I wrote this while I was still in Philadelphia, but didn’t get the chance to get it posted until now.

So, staging…

For a day and a half of meetings, honestly, it is pretty awesome. It is truly fabulous to finally be started. I have been thinking about this and planning for it for so long, that to finally be doing it, to officially be a Peace Corps Trainee is just wonderful.

My first impressions are good. Yes, it was a bunch of meetings and information. We learned a lot about crossing the culture barriers, how to gain acceptance and integrate. We talked a lot about safety. We learned PC lingo – “post” is the country we are placed in, “site” is the community within that country where we live and work. Some of it made me a little more nervous about what I am doing, most of it, quite honestly, made me more excited. I am quite confident that this is the path I am supposed to be on now.

There are 54 people in my group. Each, their own version of super cool. We range in age from 21 to 63. Our experiences and lives up to this moment have the same broad range. It will be very interesting to get to know everyone and see, over the next 2 years how our dynamic grows and changes.

One of the many activities we did was to write our personal definition of success as a PC Volunteer. I have no idea how this definition will change as I go through training and my years of service, but I thought I would leave you with my definition of success as a volunteer…

I will know that I am a successful Volunteer when… I feel like a part of my new world. When I don’t act as a representative of the United States, but as a member and representative of my community. When the respect I give those I live and work with equals the respect they give me. When I can communicate without thinking about it. When I am someone people admire, not for what I am about to do, but for what I have done.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The beginning...

So, this is the beginning of my story. I can’t promise that it will be a very good story, or even a remotely interesting story. It is simply my words to share with all of you about the wild and crazy adventure on which I am about to embark.

When you tell people you are moving to Azerbaijan, you get one of two responses. The first comes from people who have no idea where it is… a noncommittal “Wow, that’s great. Remind me again where that is?” Or, as my incredible friend Allison put it, “Where is that? It sounds like a clothing line.” The second response comes from people who know exactly where it is… they grimace and say, “Ewww, really? Why?” I respond to either with a laugh, then a brief answer.

The “where is that” question is easy – Azerbaijan is part of the Caucasus mountain region of Eastern Europe. It is part of the former Soviet Union; right in between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, south of Russia, north of Iran. Yes Iran. That is what leads people to the “ewww, really” response. The answer to that one is a little harder. Yeah, it is near some scary places. But, “near” is not “in”. My northern Virginia neighborhood can be just as scary if you go down the wrong street. So, whether you have no idea where I am going or you know exactly where I am going, do not worry about me. I will be fine. Seriously.

As anyone who is reading this already knows, I have accepted an invitation from the Peace Corps to serve in Azerbaijan for a little over 2 years. People ask me why I decided to do this. The flippant answer I usually give is that – as everyone knows – I was sick of selling shoes! There is, of course, a lot more to it. It is something I have thought about for a really long time. As hard as it is to leave home, the timing is right. I wanted to get off the career path I was stuck on. I want to be proud of what I am doing. I desperately want to travel. I want to learn about a culture that is entirely foreign to me. I want to do good in the world. The Peace Corps satisfies all of those desires – and a lot more. I know that it is going to be hard. More importantly, I know that I will come back a much better – and probably cooler – person.

So, here’s the nitty-gritty. On Sunday, I go to Philadelphia for staging – basically, a day and a half of meetings. On Tuesday, I will be getting on an airplane and flying almost halfway across the world. From there, I will move in with a host family and start two months of training. Six days a week of language, culture, and my job. After that, I move to my community and start working. I have gone from months of waiting and waiting, to here - my immediate future.

As my departure looms ever closer, I am excited and nervous and - perhaps most of all - overwhelmed at the thought of only two suitcases for two years! Yikes.

Cross your fingers for me, and stay tuned for the next installment of the Adventures of AzerbaiJane.