Thursday, September 10, 2009

Completion of Service...

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

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

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

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

Sag ol, Azerbaijan!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Saying Goodbye...

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 8, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 7, 2009

How I Spend My Days...

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

Monday, August 3, 2009


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

Friday, July 31, 2009

Stories from Camp... Mahammad...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories from Camp... Buying Dirt...

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"18 manat."
"18 manat?"

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

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

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

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Yay Kamp the Sequel, Week Three...

After the success of the first two weeks of camp, I was super excited for the beginning of week three - Arts & Crafts Week. I knew it was going to be a good week for my students, and I was really looking forward to helping them be creative, but quite honestly, I was also just plain excited to play with popsicle stick and glue and make friendship bracelets and tie-dye t-shirts.

Like the other two weeks, camp wouldn't have been possible without help from PCVs. Kathleen Keating, Bonnie Wilson, Jesse Fincannon, Kelsey Hull, Alexis Cohen, Kim Joyce, Charlie Djordjevic, Rachel Carter, Laura Durden, Jen Catrambone, and Amanda Brune made Arts and Crafts week a huge success. Jaclyn and I truly couldn't have done it without them.

Our first day was popsicle stick day. We started with God's Eyes in the morning. After doing a small lesson comparing God's Eyes to the Azeri Evil Eye and the similarities is the idea that they are protection, we busted out the yarn popsicle sticks and went to town. And the kids loved it! We ended up with some pretty elaborate God's Eyes with all kinds of feathers and beads and things adorning them. In the afternoon, we made popsicle stick picture frames. This one had been a big hit last year, so we thought it was worth repeating. There were all kinds of different frames made - a few funny looking, but most were just cool! My favorite was done by Agshin, one of the boys in my group this week. Check out the picture, you'll see why!

Day two was tie-dye day. I have to admit, I was a little nervous about how this would go! We warned the kids to wear clothes that they could get messy, we handled everything with care, and as much as possible it was the PCVs' hands that got dyed bright colors. And it was awesome!!! Each group had their own colors, so that all of the kids had the same thing, but they were also "team" specific. The students loved it! We ended up with some really cool looking shirts and a lot of questions from the community around watching us, seeing the brightly colored hands, and finally the pretty colored t-shirts. We had everybody wear their t-shirts for the last day of camp, and it looked awesome!

Day three was drawing and friendship bracelets. A request I had gotten from last year was to have a day of drawing. Seemed like a good idea, especially if we could use it as a way to help the students think outside of the box. Drawing here is pretty much copying exactly what the teacher tells you. That was something we wanted to challenge, so we came up with drawing activities where they HAD to draw their own thing. In Each classroom, we set up a still life for the kids to draw. The trick was that they were each drawing it from a different angle, so they all ended up with a different picture of the same thing. I don't know how successful our message was, but I do think they understood that all of their drawings looked good, even if the weren't exactly the same. After drawing, we did friendship bracelets. One of the neatest things for me about that was that several of the kids who came to camp last year remember how to do it and helped teach the other students. Pretty rad. Oh, and check the pictures to see what two friends from America came to help for the day :-)

On the last day of arts and crafts week, we made homemade playdough. It took a little convincing to get the students to dig in to the mushy blue stuff that they saw made from flour and oil and water, but once they did, they really liked it. They made hedgehogs, snowmen, flowers, spiders, a mini tea set, and my favorite, a reinactment of Sports Week's water balloon fight!

At the end of the day, we had a ceremony to celebrate the end of Yay Kamp. We invited my school director and the students' parents to come participate. Following Azeri custom, we thanked my director for letting us have camp. We also presented him with his very own tie-dye t-shirt. It was a big hit! He gave a speech reminding the students how great this opportunity was for them and telling them to remember it and carry the things they learned throughout the rest of their lives. His speech was about the time I started crying. That was the moment that I really appreciated that this was my goodbye to so many of these kids. Luckily, Jaclyn was sitting next to me and helped me get over my tears without too many people noticing! I misted up a few more times, but it wasn't obvious.

They sang the clean-up song (which I'll be happy if I never hear again!),After Qadir muellim's speech, each of the groups presented something they had learned during camp. performed Boom-Chicka-Boom, team cheers, and talked about their favorite parts of camp. We presented each student with a certificate and group picture. Since it was my last moment with so many of these kids, I took a moment to say good bye and to tell them how much they mean to me. Then we ended the ceremony with cheers and clapping and sent the kids on their way. There were hugs and signatures a few more tears and tons of pictures all around before it was finally done.

Yay Kamp was absolutely amazing. I still can't quite believe how lucky I am to have had such an incredible project as part of my Peace Corps experience. Working with the students and the students leaders and having fun with them and watching them grow was just wonderful. I truly believe that I have had an impact on their lives. I know absolutely that they have had an impact on mine. These three weeks and these students will stay with me forever. To quote Aysel and Arash, third place winners from Azerbaijan on Eurovision, they will be "always in my heart and always on my mind."

Friday, July 17, 2009

Yay Kamp the Sequel, Week Two...

After a couple of days of relaxing and recovery from Week One, it was quickly time to get our game faces on and start Week Two - Sports and Games. We planned a combination of indoor and outdoor games for the kids to play this week. The one absolute rule - no football(soccer)! That's one of the only sports they play here, and it is something the boys always dominate.

My school director arranged for us to go to the sport school for our outdoor days. That was incredible. Instead of being crammed on a tiny grassy area filled with nettles in my school yard, we had a big field to play on and do activities on. It was great! The one down side was that there was very little shade. We all ended up with some pretty intense tan lines from the day!

Our first day was Wiffle Ball and Kick Ball. We explained the rules in the classroom, then headed over to the field to start playing. I had expectations of it being a big bust. I thought the girls would just sit and complain and let the boys dominate everything. Not so. Everyone got really into it. And there was some serious team spirit! All of the kids played hard and had a great day!

The second day was inside for games. In my mind, this was a really important day. There is so little here for kids - especially girls - to do, a lot of their free time is spent just sitting at home watching TV. Knowing that these kids will spend a big chunk of their lives sitting at home, I wanted to teach them games and activities they could do there. So we taught them Yahtzee and cards games like Uno and Go Fish and Spoons. The kids loved it! A couple of my student took home Yahtzee score cards to play at home. Success!

Day three was Tag and more indoor games. We played English Word Tag (like TV tag, but with English words instead of TV shows) and Snake Tag and Freeze Tag and more. We played Simon Says and Red Light Green Light. Inside, we played classics like Heads Up Seven Up and new games like Wink Murder and a really cool counting/hand slapping game. One group even did an egg parachute drop. The team to build a parachute that keeps their egg from breaking when dropped out of the window wins. That was a big hit - for the kids participating AND the kids watching!

One of my favorite things of the week was teaching the students Boom-Chicka-Boom. a lot of the teachers at school came out front to watch us do the chant with the kids and make general fools of ourselves. I still have the song stuck in my head, though!

The last day of the week was Relay Day - a lot like elementary school field days. We were at the sport school again, so we got to really spread out and go to town! We started with the Three-Legged Race and moved on to the Wheelbarrow Race. I love how enthused the students were! I expected them to freak out at the idea of putting their hands on the ground for the wheelbarrow race, and a few did, but most dived in with a vengence! On girl even complained about the fact that she couldn't be the "wheelbarrow" because she was wearing a skirt. After the Wheelbarrow Race, we did the Bean bag hop - you have to hop on one foot down the line, around your teacher and back to the starting point while balancing a bean bag on you head. It was grand! We took a little bit of time to rest, then had the kids run a blindfolded obstacle course - guided by one of their teammates telling them where to go. We rounded out the relays with a water balloon toss. Which then turned into a giant water balloon fight. I think for a lot of the kids - and PCVs - that was the highlight of Sports and Games week!

All in all, Week two was awesome! Of course it couldn't have been done without the help of PCVs Ryan Schaffer, Katie Preston, Emma Jackson, Mathias Jackson, Amy Eilts, Alison Reggio, Johanna Klees, Jake Larson, Loki Tobin, and Joe Valles. Their enthusiasm and energy and intensely hard work was incredible and made this week absolutely amazing!

Hard to believe, but there is only one week of Yay Kamp left. I'm really looking forward to Arts and Crafts Week, but I'm already a little sad that camp is coming to an end so soon. It has been just wonderful for the kids, student leaders, and me!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Yay Kamp the Sequel, Week One...

After months of planning and preparation, the big event was finally here! On July 6, 2009, Yay Kamp the Sequel began. With the help of 15 student leaders and PCVs Kat Zigmont, Whitney Bey, Sara Nevius, Rachel Wurdeman, Amy Todd, Linde Gies, Josh Neese-Todd, the project Jaclyn and I have spent so much time preparing for was off to a great start.

I can't say enough about how great our student leaders are. The student leaders are secondary school or university students who have excellent English. They have all kinds of backgrounds - a few who just returned from a year-long exchange program in America, a few who are preparing to go to America, and a few who are just really talented and really eager to be involved. They help us with translation and classroom management and keeping the kids enthused. Their enthusiasm and excitement is incredible - and completely contagious!

At 10 a.m. about 108 students arrived for the first week of camp - Environmental Awareness Week. They were all quickly sorted into groups, and then it was off to the classrooms to begin the day. One of the first things each group did was choose a team name. We ended up with the Tigers, the Flying Eagles, the Big Strong Dragon, Black King Lion, and Fiery Red Dragon.

The plan for Environmental Week was for the kids to have fun, of course, but also to get them thinking about taking care of the environment. Azerbaijan isn't exactly the best when it comes to environmental awareness, so this was a pretty important message to get across to the kids. We did all kinds of activities and games to get the students thinking about the environment.

The first day we had a nature scavenger hunt. We gave the kids a list of things that belong in nature and things that don't belong in nature that they had to find. The team that found them first won. Pretty exciting that the group I was working with for the week - Fiery Red Dragon - won!

The second day was our planting day. We made plant holder out of one-liter soda bottles. We decorated them with stickers and pictures from magazines and glitter glue and all kinds of other fun crafty stuff. We let them dry during recess, and then planted flower seeds. Side note - trying to buy dirt in the bazar gets a lot of laughs from the azeris you ask and the others who are watching you! But the student loved it! Everyday they watered their plants and looked to see if they were sprouting yet. By Thursday, a few of them had little sprouts!

Day 3 was the trash pick up. Not any Azerbaijana's favorite activity by a long shot, but by making it a competition we get all of the students to work really hard at it. We had plastic gloves, provided by the Peace Corps Azerbaijan Environmental Committee so that is wasn't as gross as it could be. A leader from each group kept count of the number of bags their students collected. Some kids got really in to it. We had 45 minutes to pick up as much as we could. In that time, we picked up 436 bags of trash. Pretty impressive, huh? The winners of that activity were the Flying Eagles. They were ecstatic!

Our last day of the week was the day we made Trash Monsters. This was by far my favorite activity. Each group had a bag of trash that they had accumulated in the classroom through out the week. They had to use the stuff in that bag to make a creature - or Trash Monster. At first the kids were kinda of grossed out. But, then, they started to get into it. And their creativity went wild! Plastic gloves became hair, bottles became arms and legs, old nail polish bottles became a nose. The monsters were AWESOME! Each group named their monster, and after recess, the PCVs and Student Leaders voted on the best name and the best monster. The Black King Lion monster won as best monster. The best name came from Big Strong Dragon. It was "Our Miss Michael Jackson Snake". How could you not vote for a name like that?

All in all week one was great! The students had fun, and I think learned something. They're all really excited about coming back next week. Sharing this with Jaclyn has meant that I've been less stressed this week that I was last year and I've had a lot of fun. I can't thank the PCVs who helped enough. They were amazing and without them, Yay Kamp just wouldn't be possible.

Tune in next week to read about week two - Sports and Games!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Two years...

As of June 27th, I will have been in the AZ for two whole years. My oh my, how time flies. I thought I'd mark the occasion by listing a few of the things I've learned in the past two years.

- Qatiq (plain yogurt) makes almost anything taste better.
- Squat toilets are bearable.
- There is a point that you physically can't add another layer of clothing.
- Summer is a LOT hotter with no air conditioning.
- A lot of food is seasonal - like vegetables, fruit, and ice cream.
- Hand washing jeans is a horrible experience.
- Showering two or three times a week is just fine to feel clean.
- On showering, having a real shower - not a bucket bath - is quite the luxury.
- Inshallah (if God wills) is my new favorite word.
- 10 hours by bus doesn't seem unbearable.
- It may actually be possible to miss food more than people.
- Wearing the same outfit for a week just makes sense.
- Tea with raspberry jam is one of the best cures for a cold ever.
- The more sequins, sparkles, and bling you have your shirt, the prettier you are.
- Spiky high heels are not only attractive, but act as ice picks for walking on snow and ice.
- I hate roosters.
- When school's not in session, I can read a book a day.
- When school is in session, the average is 3 books a week.
- Titanic is possible the greatest movie known to man (or at least Azerbaijanis).
- Beef tastes different when it's primary source of food is the trash heap.
- Telling someone they've gotten fat is not an insult. Calling them fat behind their back is.
- Having a pet cat makes me strange.
- You should only pluck your eyebrows after you get married to protect your honor.
- Crystal Light is the nectar of the gods.
- Being a yaxsi giz (good girl) is one of the best compliments you can get.
- It is never too hot for tea.


- There really is no place like home.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

My New Home...

About two weeks ago, I was out walking and ran into my landlady - Hegiget. We exchanged pleasantries, and then she told me that the xanim bought the apartment and I would have to move in the middle of July or August. The week before, I had a conversation with Hegiget and her husband about exactly what date I would be leaving in September, so the news that I might be moving sooner than that was a bit of a surprise to say the least.

Now my azeri isn't great, so I was hoping that I misunderstood and she said the xanim was going to sell the apartment is July or August. So, I went to my counterpart and asked if she could call Hegiget to find out what was going on. She did and told me that I had to move by July 1st. Well, crap. We tried every form of negotiation possible - begging, pleading, offering more money - all with no success. Again, crap.

My counterpart is amazing and immediately started helping me look for a new place. We went to the mekler (basically a real estate agent) in my neighborhood. He had an apartment available on June 15th. We went to look at it to make sure it was ok. I've gotta be honest, needing a home ASAP to live in for all of 2 and a half months meant that there wasn't much that was going to make this apartment NOT be ok in my mind. Luckily, it is actually pretty nice.

Hegiget returned half of June's rent so I could take this place on the 15th. When I went to get the money from her, she and her husband apologized profusely and asked me not to be angry with them. My old apartment actually belonged to her brother. He decided to sell it, leaving them no choice. Sucks, but it does make me feel a bit better about Hegiget and Ziyad, who I have come to care a great deal about in the past 2 years.

So, with a lot of help from my sitemates, on June 16th, I moved into my new place. In a lot ways, I've moved up in the world - I have a lot more furniture, and the queen size bed is very nice. In other ways, I've moved a bit lower - my mini toilet isn't much fun, and 'm very sad to return to bucket baths. But, I have a home for the next 2 months, which is the most important thing! And, it got resolved very quickly and easily, which is incredible! Less than a week after I found out I had to move, I was settling in to my new home.

And so, here are some pictures of my lovely new abode. Home Sweet Home for the next 2 1/2 months. Inshallah :-)

This is my super-fancy living room. Check out that couch and armchairs! It's like I've died and gone to furniture heaven!!!

This is in my kitchen - a room that leaves a lot to be desired. That is my friend Whitney lighting the stove - with a pair of pliers because there are no knobs on my stove. The refrigerator is fun too - you have to lift the door up and hold it up with it is open, otherwise it falls off. Ahhh, the things that have become normal here!

Here's my bedroom - and the lovely queen size bed. And, I actually have a mirror, which I didn't have in the old place. Seriously, I won the furniture lottery in this apartment!

The mini-toilet. Not quite a squatter, not quite a western toilet. It's awkward. That big red bucket is my flushing mechanism.

And, last but not least, my new shower/bath. Sigh. Well, I guess it will make me appreciate American showers all that much more when I return home!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

From the bottom of my heart...

Thank you!

As of Friday morning, English Language Summer Camp (or Camp Jane the Sequel for short) is officially fully funded! For all of you who donated or passed to information along to someone who would be interested in donating, thank you so much. I appreciate the support more than I can ever truly express in words.

The big event start July 6, 2009. We're expecting between 150 and 180 kids to participate in the three week long program. There are already plans for water balloons fights and relay races and wiffle ball and popsicle stick bird houses and friendship bracelets and tye-dyed t-shirts and much much more. Becuase of your support, all of this can happen. As camp progresses, I will post information and stories and keep you all informed on how its going. Again, thank you!

Sunday, May 31, 2009


An abundance of free time leads to a multitude of ways to to fill it. Last night, instead of my usual reading a book or playing solitare, I composed some Haikus (this might be a new low - or high, depending on how you view it for my ways to cure boredom.) Anyway. I thought I'd share the gems about my life here that I came up with. Enjoy!

In my apartment,
The rooster's crow wakes me up.
That, I will NOT miss.

In the yard, "qatiq,
ayran, xiyar, pomidor,"
Xanims yell to sell.

Translators notes on this one - qatiq is basically plain yogurt, ayran is this super-gross (in my opinion) dairy product that they make, xiyar is cucumber, pomidor is tomato, and xanim is the word used for woman/lady - usually when PCVs use it it refers to old ladies.


Swerve to miss a sheep.
Speed to pass the slow, slow trucks.
Stop - for no reason.

And my personal favorite...

Bucket Bath
Scoop, splash, scrub with soap.
One bucket is all you need
To get Azer-clean.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Last Toy...

Toys (the Azeri word for wedding) are a BIG deal here. Everyone loves a toy. Peace Corps Volunteers get invited to about a gazillion toys during their time here. One of my friends went to 18 toys last summer alone. There is prestige in having the American at your wedding - and showing them off. And toys are fun - there's good food, dancing, tons of toasts and speeches, and photos. As much fun as they are, I have to say, after about 3, they get kinda old.

When my parents came to visit in March, I went through all of my stuff to see what I could send home with them. Sweaters, my winter coat, knick knacks my students have given me, souvenirs I have accumulated all went in the suitcase. And then I got to my toy shoes. They're American - Nine West, I think. Black pumps with a pointy toe and high heel - Azeris LOVE them! I sat down and thought about whether or not I would be going to another toy in my remaining time here. I had decided that I would only go to a wedding if I knew the bride or groom or their parents personally. I mentally went through my list of people. Both of my counterparts are married and the children are little. One host sister is too young, the other is working in Baku and has no desire to get married yet - and my host mom is ok with that. Most of my landlady's family is already married off. It a bold choice and quite a risk to take, but I decided that I was safe sending the toy shoes home.

Fast forward to May, when I found out that my gamble had failed. See, when I went through my list of people, I had forgotten about the young, unmarried English teachers at my school. Women I know really well and like a lot. People that fit my criteria of whether or not I would go, and people who's wedding I would actually want to go to. So, when I got the invitation to Vusala's wedding, I knew I had to go.

Luckily, one of my sitemates wears close to the same shoe size as me, so I was able to borrow some appropriately fancy shoes. I got myself all dolled up - shiny shirt, heels, and far more makeup than I usually wear - and went with my counterparts to Vusala's toy.

And it was a lot of fun. The food was great. We danced - but not so much that there is a whole section of the American dancing on the wedding video. And, of course, we had the obligatory photo with the bride and groom. You'll notice no one is smiling in the picture (which, I think makes me look stupid. I'd far rather my big grin in the picture, but sometimes you have to do it Azer-style!) No one smiles in pictures. And certainly not in toy pictures. All in all, I'm really glad I went.

I'm pretty confident that this was indeed my last toy. There's a chance Elnora (the woman in the blue shirt in the picutre) will get married before I leave. And if she does, I'll borrow shoes and go to her wedding and dance and eat good food and not smile in the picture.

But, inshallah (if god wills), Vusala's toy was my last toy in Azerbaijan.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Shameless Plea for Help...

The most successful I have felt as a Peace Corps Volunteer was last summer. Many of you will probably remember the gloriousness (and stress!) of Camp Jane. That month was A LOT of hard work, but it was also the first time I felt like I had really offered something valuable as a volunteer. I certainly couldn't have done it without all of the support from home and other PCVs. I believe, looking back on my service in 10 years, Summer Camp will always be the thing I am the most proud of.

Last year, Camp Jane was a HUGE success. Over 3 weeks, a total of about 80 kids participated and PCVs from all over Azerbaijan came to help. We played Capture the Flag, we jump-roped, we taught them Miss Mary Mack. We made popsicle stick picture frames, friendship bracelets, and sock puppets. We showed them how to make paper footballs, we played kickball, we had relay races and water balloon fights. I saw kids go from shy to outgoing, reserved to enthusiastic, barely able to speak English to chatting with PCVs during our break time. We watched these kids have fun - and we had fun with them. And even more importantly, we gave them something that will last a lifetime.

Over the course of this school year, I have gotten to see some of the lasting effect Camp had on my students. I see my students have a much more positive attitude and willingness to participate in the classroom. I see some of my little girls outside playing - often games they learned in camp. One of my students' new favorite hobby is jump-roping. Another student teaches her own English Club - the day I visited they were doing Miss Mary Mack. And almost everyday, students ask me if we will have camp again this summer.

The answer to that question is YES! This year I have teamed up with another PCV, Jaclyn Gilstrap, who lives and teaches in one of the villages of Lankaran. Since I'm working with Jaclyn I can't call it Camp Jane anymore, but I'm ok with that! Students from both of our schools will participate in the 3-week long camp. This year, we're doing an Environmental Week, Sports and Games Week, and Arts and Crafts Week. Between the 2 schools, we expect over 100 students. Yay Kamp is going to be bigger, better, and definitely impact more kids.

We need your help. I have a lot of supplies left over from last year, but there are things we still need. We need to be able to pay to bus the students from Liman (Jaclyn's village) to and from my school. We hope to be able to be able to provide water for the kids and we looking at being able to take them to a football (soccer) game. We have so many plans and ideas for Yay Kamp the Sequel - and a lot of them can't happen without financial support.

Yay Kamp has been accept as a Peace Corps Partnership Program project. PCPP is a way for people at home to contribute to PCV projects. It is tax deductible, and no amount is too small - and certainly, no amount is too big :-) Please, check out the link below. Feel free to share it with anyone who you think might be interested in supporting this amazing project. And if you decide to donate, you'll have the undying gratitude of me, Jaclyn, and about 100 Azeri children.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

My Favorite Thing About Wednesdays...

These are my second formers. They're all 7 or 8 years old, and are super cute. I only teach them one hour a week (which is probably good. I think I'd lose my patience with them really quickly if I saw them more often than that!) Anyway, they are my last lesson of the day on Wednesdays. It doesn't matter how bad my day was leading up to the moment I walk into their classroom, as soon as I'm there, the day is good. They are excited, really eager to learn and show off how much they know, a little wild, easily distracted, always smiling (except for those rare few times someone dissolves into tears for something that seems ridiculously little to me) and just silly enough to crack me up every week. In short, they're awesome. And I love 'em.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

M&D's Trip to the AZ...

It was eagerly anticipated. It was much planned for. Hours of phoned calls, emails, and texts went into the preparations. After a year and 9 months of waiting, the big event was finally here... my Mom and Dad arrived in Azerbaijan!

After looking forward to my parents coming to visit for so long, it was kind of hard to believe that they were really here. Waiting at the airport, I was restless with excitement and nerves. I couldn't stop pacing and every time the doors hope, I caught my breath, thinking "will it be them this time?" Usually, it was some oil worker ex-pat - not them. Each time, I peered through the door, hoping for a glimpse of them. Nothing. But, finally, the doors slid open and it was Mom and Dad Flegal! Yay!!!!!

We spent our first couple of days in Baku, doing the sights and giving them a little bit of time to settle in and get over the jet lag. We did a bunch of the tourist things I've never gotten to do. On of the things about coming to Baku for work so often is that I don't do the interesting sight seeing that is here. Much like having spent my life living in the DC area and never having been to the Washington Monument. We went to the Maiden's Tower, the carpet shop - where we got a complete education on carpets, later in the trip we saw the Sihirvan Shah's Palace. It was great!

After Baku, we headed down to Lankaran. We had about a week planned there so that my folks could see a few of my conversation clubs, meet my friends and counterparts, celebrate Novruz (my absolute favorite holiday in Azerbaijan!), and see a little bit of what my life is really like here. I have to say, this may have been my favorite part of their visit. I loved getting to show off my town - both the good and the bad. I loved getting to show off my parents. I love that my mom treated me to things I wouldn't but for myself - like bananas.

We saw the sights of Lankaran - the lighthouse, the park, the Stalin Prison, the river. We went to the bazar. My parents' response after the bazar was, "well, that was truly bizarre." We relaxed at my apartment and just hung out the way we would have at their house in Herndon (you know, if their house was a bare-bones apartment in a developing country. But the ambiance was the same, and that's what's important.)

We spent the two major holidays of Novruz with each of my counterparts. We celebrated Chershemba Bayram (Tuesday Holiday) with Ruhangiz and her family. Chershemba is probably my favorite - that's the day you jump over fire and do all the cool games like egg fights. One of the coolest things was getting my mom to jump over fire (my Dad was saftely nestled on Ruhangiz's balcony taking pictures). We spent Novruz (March 20 - the first day of spring) with my other counterpart, Afag, and her family. At both homes, my parents got to experience Azeri national meals and typical Azeri hospitality. For the first time since I've been here, people weren't forcing a ton of food on me. Instead, I got to sit back and watch my parents struggle through mountains of food being piled on their plates. Everywhere we went - my counterparts', my landlady's, my school - people were so excited to see them. My parents couldn't escape a meeting without drinking tea, eating a ton of food, and some kind of gift.

After Lankaran, we headed up north. First a stop in Lahij - one of the neatest villiages in the AZ. It is way up in the mountians, and the road up is, at times, terrifying, but it is well worth it. After Lahij, we headed to Sheki. One of the great things bout our trip to Sheki is that I hadn't been there yet. It was really cool to get to discover a part of Azerbaijan with them, rather than just showing them the stuff I had already been to.

Everyone is right - Sheki is beautiful. One of the prettiest places I've been to in Azerbaijan. We did the major sights - The Xan Saray (Khan's Palace) and the Caravansaray. Please note who's hanging out with my parents in the picture at the Xan Saray. That's right - Shannon and Dr. Heidi got to travel with us ! We stayed at the Caravansaray (an old hotel that was part of the Silk Road back in the day). My mother was not a big fan of the steps at the Caravansaray! We shopped - also a very fun experience for me. On my PC budget, all I can usually do it window shopping. Walking around with my Mom and Dad, who could actually buy all of the really cool things we saw, was great! We had dinner with a bunch of PCVs and my Mom and Dad got to meet abunch ofthe Americans who make up such an important part of my Azer-world.

Sadly, all good things have to come to an end, so all too soon, it was time to return to Baku and send them back to America. We spent one final day in Baku, finishing up some shopping, doing a bit more sightseeing, getting them all packed up, and relaxing. It was a nice way to end the visit.

One of the best things about my parents' visit was getting to see Azerbaijan through their eyes. It gave me a fresh perspective on so many things. Things that I have come to accept as just being the way they are - like the conditions at my school - I saw without my rose-colored glasses again. Things that I have come to hate - like the constant attention anytime I walk around town - I saw with a little more kindness. In a way, they gave me a new appreciation for the place I am living in. I think that's pretty awesome.

Having my Mom and Dad here for a couple of weeks was incredible. It was definitely hard to see them go, but having the knowledge that I'll see them again in a few short months made it much easier. And, cheesy as this sounds, the memories will last a lifetime.