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.