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.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day...

As many (probably most) of you know, today is Earth Day.

Azerbaijan is one of the most polluted countries in the world. It sits on the shores of the Caspian Sea - the most polluted body of water on the planet. Of all the countries in the world, it is one that could really use the message Earth Day promotes - environmental awareness, not polluting the land and sea, taking care of the world.

Armed with that knowledge, I decided to make Earth Day the subject of my weekly conversation club with university students. Now, these students are amazing. They are the people that I believe will start many of the changes this country needs. When we did a club about gender roles, the boys were the ones to say it wasn't fair that girls can't do the same things they can - like study abroad, go to football (soccer) games, or even go to restaurants. When we talked about the US election in November, they all had incredible ideas and thoughts about both candidates, about democracy, about what they want the world to be. In almost all of our club meetings, they usually start with the idea I had planned on spending an hour getting them to. It's awesome. Like I said, they are a great group of students.

I kinda thought my Earth Day lesson would end up being redundant for them. I figured they would already know all about it and have the answers and ideas I wanted to share with them. But it was still an important enough topic that I wanted to address it. Imagine my surprise when none of them knew what Earth Day was. Wow. Instead of my typical problem with them - that they know more than I expect them to - they knew far less that I had expected. OK. I could still work with it. I am great at improvising.

I started again from a new angle. I asked them for reasons that we might celebrate Earth Day. The first guess? "Because that is the day the Earth was made?"

Oh dear.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Ask a lot of PCVs, and they'll probably groan if you mention the word "sustainability". Sustainability is a concept that is pretty high on the list of Peace Corps ideals. The premise is that everything we do should be sustainable - the people we work with should be able to do it without us after we're gone. Makes sense that that should be one of our primary goals as PCVs. I do actually believe that it is very important to what I am doing here. The concept is great. But, I have to be honest, the reality of sustainability is HARD. But like any good volunteer, I don't let the challenges keep me down. I keep plugging away. What's that old saying? If at first you don't succeed, try, try (try, try, try, try, try, try, try ,try) again.

About a year ago, I had a pretty intense conversation with my counterpart about the solar system (there's a section in the seventh form textbook about the planets.) As we were beginning the unit, my counterpart told the students that there were 11 planets. Now, science was never my strong point, but I was pretty sure that number was wrong. So, I asked her what the 11 planets were. Her answer, "Earth, Mars, Saturn, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, the Sun and the Moon." The Sun and the Moon??????? OK, I'll repeat, science was never my strong point, but I'm pretty much positive that the Sun and the Moon are NOT planets. We have a really good relationship, so instead of letting it go and letting her save face in front of the students, I challenged her. I wasn't going to touch the whole "Pluto's not really a planet" thing with a ten foot pole, but I had to address the Sun and the Moon. We went back and forth about it for the majority of the lesson. By the end of the lesson, I still wasn't completely sure I had convinced her. But I fought the good fight.

Fast forward to the same unit this year. For about a week ahead of time, I was dreading the day we got to the solar system. D-Day arrived. As we began the lesson, I braced myself to hear about the 11 planets in our solar system. I had even made the decision that I was going to let it go this year - it would be hard and go against ever fiber of my being, but it just wasn't worth it. Is that reverse sustainability - they're changing me? Anyway.

She asked the question, "how many planets are there?" The kids said 9. I took a deep breath and waited for her to correct them. And then she said, "That's correct. There are 9 planets. Are the Sun and the Moon planets?" Pause. "No. The Sun and the Moon are NOT planets."

I was shocked. I was amazed. I was incredibly proud. I helped someone I was working with to see things differently and do something differently - without my prompting. I have achieved sustainability. I am a successful volunteer.