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.