Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Happy Holidays from Balakan, Azerbaijan!!!

First things first, happy holidays to all! As I discussed in my last post, things are a little different here. It’s not that we don’t have the fanfare of the holiday season; it’s that the celebrations are for new years instead, which IS a very important holiday here. They do not celebrate Christmas, which is understandable given that it is a Muslim country. What doesn’t make sense is that Santa Claus has become some creepy fat guy that has no association with Christmas whatsoever. In fact, most people have never even heard of Christmas (Milad Bayrami in Azeri), which makes it even stranger when you hear classic Christmas songs like, oh I don’t know…”It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like CHRISTMAS” blasting from the outdoor speakers of every store in the city!!!
Anyway, my fellow volunteers have done an amazing job of making it feel as much like the holiday season as humanly possible! Christmas parties were arranged by AZ7s throughout the country. I went to Sheki with 40 other volunteers. Our weekend included a white elephant gift exchange, cheeseburgers and fries, pancakes, and a screening of Elf. It certainly was not like being at home eating my mom’s roast and taking Gretzky (my dog) to the beach, but it was a wonderful weekend all the same.


Currently, I am still in that beginning stage of being at permanent site. I associate this initial stage with waiting. I’m busy, don’t get me wrong, but I wait on other people…A LOT. My goal right now is to meet as many people as possible; I’m keeping it simple. I have many meetings everyday, and I try to entertain every request to go somewhere and meet someone who heard of the new American in town. However, much of this socializing is associated with monotonous waiting. Dates and times are set, but they are often not met. People run late a lot, and occasionally they don’t shown up at all and give no explanation for their absence. I have no schedule of my own. My life is revolving around other people’s schedules right now. I knew to expect this, but it still can be difficult to manage, especially for a Peace Corps volunteer. We are prepared so well for our service. We go over a million scenarios, and talk ad nauseam about everything to expect at site. By the time training comes to an end, all we want to do is get to site and get started. However, once we get here, we quickly see exactly why we are here. Despite how enthusiastic and hopeful many of my counterparts are, we can’t just jump right in. If it were that easy, we would not be needed here in the first place. The ultimate vision of sustainability in all that we do means that patience and consideration are necessary above all else.


Living in Balakan, so near to Russian, means that I hear a lot of Russian everyday. I hope to begin studying it once my Azeri improves. Every time my family switches to Russian at the dinner table, I nervously suspect that they are talking about me. I quickly realize that they could speak about me in Azeri and I STILL probably wouldn’t understand what they were saying!!! This is strangely comforting and depressing at the same time! Anyway, according to people from Balakan, Russia is apparently the international language, and it is assumed that everyone knows it. Let me give you an example.
Last weekend I took a bus from neighboring region Zaqatala back to Balakan. The bus was overfilled, and needless to say, like every other day of my new life, I stood out. A middle-aged man started talking to me. Once I responded to the first question in Azeri, other passengers realized that I wouldn’t bite and began speaking to me as well. The man cut in and began asking more questions, everything from how much money I make per year to why I still was not married considering my age (standard in this county). He then asked if I spoke Russian…a very easy question to understand. I gave the even easier response that I did not speak Russian, but spoke a little Azeri. It was as if I hadn’t said anything at all. He went on speaking to me in Russian as if I were Ivan Drago from Rocky 4. Despite my multiple attempts to explain that I DID NOT SPEAK RUSSIAN, he just went on giving me his life story in Russian. Eventually, another very kind Azeri man hit the guy in the arm and along with a phrase that I did not understand (but must learn!) frustratingly explained that the American did not speak Russian. The man dramatically turned back to me, looking as if he had just seen a ghost. “You don’t speak Russian? Every American speaks Russian. Everyone in the world understands Russian!” Incorrect my friend, I am sorry. The man finally, yet reluctantly, accepted my answer, although I assume he’ll be just as confused the next time he bumps into an American on a bus.

I suspect that such confusion stems from what people were taught during Soviet times, which I forget were not that long ago!


On a final, hopefully amusing note, I wanted to explain one of the strangest and most ironic cultural differences I have experienced in this country. Because I am so close to Russian, my family has mostly Russian television channels. This has made this cultural paradox all the more evident. Azeri’s, in general, are very physically and sexually reserved people, especially out in the regions. Exposing bare legs, being shirtless, and showing too much public affection (between different sexes) is all really frowned upon. Because of this, Americans generally get a bad rap as being loose, moralless people. What I find amusing is that my family finds it perfectly acceptable to watch uncensored, “Most Shocking” Russian sensationalist programs that show everything from suicides to limbs being bit off by animals, yet when Leo kisses Kate on the bow of the Titanic, the entire family gives a disapproving shake of their heads and the channel is immediately changed, only to return to it 5 seconds later once the kiss is over. Seriously, everything from the most romantic to the most innocent and nonsexual, physical affection is a just a big “no-no”.  While watching TV at night, my family smirks when I turn white and nearly throw up because a man falls out of a moving car on the highway and gets run over by a Mac truck; that’s entertainment. However, when Princess Buttercup and Wesley kiss in the Princess Bride, now that’s just plain inappropriate!
I really like my new family, but this is one cultural difference I will NEVER understand.
The view of the moon from my house
This might be too small to see, but in this Azeri sports encyclopedia, it says the first ever hockey game was played between university students at a Montreal University in 1879. MCGILL!
The Heyday Aliyev statue

Friday, December 17, 2010

Don’t Get Lost in Azerbaijan!

This is tip #1. If you find yourself in Azerbaijan, no matter what you do, for the love of God, please DO NOT get lost!
I recently took a quick ½ day trip to a settlement (Yeni Sharif) just outside of Balakan City. I went with my counterpart and Abil. Abil had a driver for the day, but the driver was only vaguely familiar with the area and the location of the settlement. We drove in the general direction for about 15 minutes. At that point, we got to a 4-way intersection. Our driver knew enough about the area to be fairly certain that we were close, maybe 5 minutes away and to the left. We made the left-hand turn and continued down the road. Approximately 5 minutes later, we were stopped by a herd of cows crossing the street. Just to be certain that we were going to right way, the driver rolled down his window while waiting and very clearly asked if we were taking the right road to get to Yeni Sharif. The shopkeeper, an old, wise looking man replied, without hesitation, that the town was, in fact, back the other way and to the right. Figuring that he knew the area better than us, the driver pulled a “U-ey” and went back to the intersection to make the right-hand turn instead. 10 or so minutes later, it was clear that we had been given the wrong directions. Swearing to himself in Russian, the driver turned around and went back to the intersection. This time at the intersection, he asked a posse of 3 men sitting in front of a barbershop. It would seem that asking a group of people instead of just one, possibly misinformed, person is a better idea right? Wrong! The first man spoke up, but was quickly cut off by his friend. Based on the slap to the back of the head that he gave his comrade, it was clear that this second man knew better which way to go. They argued for a moment and then finally agreed on the correct direction. Right as we were about the leave, the 3rd man spoke up, stating that both of the other men were wrong, and that Yeni Sharif was actually straight ahead at the intersection. Miraculously, the other two men instantly disregarded their original directions and agreed with the 3rd man’s choice. We began to seriously doubt the intelligence of these 3 stooges, but we really had no choice. So, we tried our luck going straight at the intersection, our final option. It quickly became clear that we had been duped once again! Just about ready to drive over a chicken on the side of the road in order to let out his frustration, the driver decided to return to the intersection one more time and ask directions from a seemingly reputable individual that Sayarra, my counterpart, would pick out. We got to the intersection and Sayarra picked her target. The driver pulled up next to him, rolled down the window, and with some serious desperation now present in his voice, asked for directions one final time. This man, like all the men before him, answered with such certainty that the settlement was, in fact, back the way we originally came – towards Balakan City. Apparently, and the man found this highly amusing, 4 people (us) had managed to miss an entire town, driving right through it without noticing where we were! Our driver stuck nearly half his body out the window and I thought I was going to have to restrain him as yelled at the man. I don’t understand Russian, but he definitely yelled the equivalent of, “@#!$  %^&*@! YOU IDIOT #$&@%” It was reminiscent of every time I drove in a car with my mother (Love you ma)!!!
At this point, the driver made the executive decision to trust his original instincts and go left. Sure enough, right around the bend from where we had stopped for the cows was the GIANT sign for Yeni Sharif.
The moral of this story is: NEVER TRUST AN AZERI GIVING DIRECTIONS. I had been warned of this before, but had never experienced it myself. Apparently, and I am, of course, speaking generally, Azeris will never admit to not knowing where something is. They are not lying to you, and you should never ever take it as an insult, but Azeris very simply will make up directions if they don’t know. Maybe it’s to save face, maybe it’s perceived as rude to not give an inquisitor an answer; I don’t know. Either way, know 100% where you are going beforehand! THE END

I Can See Russia From My House! No seriously, I can!

The rough streets of Balakan
Not a bad view when walking to work
My new office and Sayyara
We kept our heads out the window for a solid 1/2 hour
My organization (Human Rights Protection and Development NGO Resource Center)
The Caucus Mountains

As I stepped out of our train compartment and staggered groggily down the narrow hall to go to the bathroom I was stopped dead in my tracks, looking out the window in utter amazement. This, I was not prepared for. A light, dewy haze obscured the details of the ridges of the Caucus Mountains that stood before me. Sitting in the forefront, green pastures, well-fed cows, dense forest, and persimmon trees so orange and full of fruit that they looked like lit Christmas trees perfectly complimented the enormity of the vast mountain range. This is what I will be calling home for the next 2 years.

The city is gorgeous. There is only one main street, and I have met most of the shopkeepers already. The bazaar is quaint and friendly and few shopkeepers try and take advantage of me. The Heydar Park here is the most beautiful one I have seen in Azerbaijan so far. A giant Heydar Aliyev statue sits atop a beautifully laid set of stairs. It is a combination of the Rocky statue in Philadelphia and the Christ the Redeem statue in Rio de Janeiro. The sounds of the flowing river follow you everywhere as you walk around the park, and one of Ilham Aliyev’s vacation homes looks down upon you ominously from the highest mountaintop.
Currently, the park is decorated in what you would think were Christmas decorations. In fact, almost every storefront in the city is decorated with snowmen, candy canes, and pictures of Santa Claus (Shakta Babar). Strangely enough, and this took a while to understand, these decorations are NOT for Christmas; they are for New Years! Azeri’s, and this is the opinion of an American, have mixed up their holidays! New Year’s is a very important holiday here, and for New Year’s they decorate like it were Christmas. In fact, most Azeri’s just think that Americans celebrate New Year’s on the 25th of December and don’t know about Christmas! Weird, eh?!


My new family is everything I could have hoped for. First of all, everyone in this “city” seems to have my family’s last name, Dibirov…seriously. Many of them are not related, while some, in fact, are relatives. Either way, it really makes me feel at home when everyone seems to be my family somehow.
Javid is my host father. He is 47 and is a taxi driver, however, he also seems to be somewhat of a farmer. He and his brother, who lives next door with his own family, grow tobacco. Javid also has a bee farm about 20 minutes outside of the city. That’s right, I get fresh honey every morning! The family also grows a lot of produce, including pomegranates, apples, nuts, and grapes. I have already begun playing Nrd with host father. He is not nearly as good as Oktay, but winning a couple of games certainly has won me a little bit of respect in the household!
Sevda is my host mother. She is 43 and is an office assistant in the same building where my NGO is. My host sister, Arzu (19), is also an office assistant in the building. When I have to be in the office at 9, the three of us walk together. Muhammad is my host brother. He is 17 and is out of school, but is studying in hopes of going to university next year.
My second night in Balakan, I received a phone call from the Ibayev’s asking how I was. Typical of his endearing, yet brusque character, Nicat, bless his heart, demanded to speak to my new host father to ensure that I was going to be well taken care of. I thought such a request would be a good test of my new host father’s personality. Javid passed with flying colors! He was more than happy to talk with Nicat and found the 15-year-old’s “interrogation” utterly hysterical.

My host organization, the women’s rights center, is a five-minute walk from my house. The organization has two rooms. One of the rooms is empty and has been designated as the resource room that I am to create and utilize. My counterpart has big plans for the room! She wants computers, internet, a television, everything that women and youth could possibly want in a resource room. Currently, there is only an old table and a few chairs in it. I am, however, making progress! This week I cleaned the floors, made a poster explaining exactly what Peace Corps is (yes, in Azeri) since no one actually knows, and hung up an American flag! It will be a long process, but I am excited for the potential that the room has. Most volunteers are never provided with such a resource right off the bat. I have been given an astounding head start.
The youth and sports ministry is located in the ExComm building, which is conveniently situated across the street! My counterparts there seem like great guys. Today, they took me on an executive tour of the Olympic sports complex just outside the city. These state-of-the-art facilities have been built throughout the country. My first impression of the place is that it is something of a boy’s club, which is only open to potential Olympians and the well-connected elite of the region. However, I met some very friendly coaches who have opened their doors to me and are willing to help in whatever endeavors I undertake.

I don’t really have hours or set responsibilities, especially now when I am just beginning. That is one of the great things about being a YD; it is a very open-ended position. I have spent the last week meeting people. I have a written list of every person I have met. That list is quickly filling up! It is a great start. Some volunteers get to their permanent sites and are immediately expected to start implementing life-changing projects. My counterparts and the people that I have met understand that without integration, effective projects are impossible. They have instructed me to take my time and get to know everyone before I even begin to think about initiating any programs.
We see eye-to-eye on many of the ideas that I have provided and I am optimistic about the relationships that are forming and the potential that is there, with both of my organizations.


My first few days of work have been great. My counterpart is a champ! Sayarra carries a lot of clout within the community. This was most evident from the project that my organization is currently engaged in. A man named Abil has been our guest for the past couple of days. Abil is a lawyer, as well as the director of a Baku-based NGO. His organization is currently engaged in a project to increase female participation in local municipal governance. Right now, they are only focusing on the municipalities of Zaqatala and neighboring Balakan, two of the most progressive regions in Azerbaijan (this is partly attributed to the large percentage of Russians and Georgians who also live in this region). In fact, rumor has it that many opposition parties used to be headquartered in Balakan and that the former president never made a trip to the region out of fear. Anyway, the program, in addition to being a fantastic idea, is also quite genius. In exchange for a guarantee of municipality cooperation, Abil’s NGO has promised a supply of computers, their accompanying gadgets, as well as technical training to women who become involved in their municipality. Sayyara’s organization, OUR organization, is serving as the mobilizing force behind the project. Sayyara’s influence has teamed up with Abil’s resources to make what seems to be a wonderful program.
We spent a day going from municipality to municipality, signing agreements and giving information sessions to interested women who had been invited by Sayyara to the municipal buildings.
On top of being so well respected, Sayyara is also an absolute sweetheart who tries to make me feel at home whenever possible, even if that means giving a speech in front of 30 Azeri women, in Azeri! During these information sessions, Abil presented to goal of the project and Sayyara discussed the role of our organization in providing support and training. To my surprise, their speeches preceded mine! I was to give a brief speech, in Azeri of course, about my role as a volunteer and my goals as a new member of the community. It was slow and uninspiring, but the women in each municipality were kind enough to give me ovations and graciously welcome me into their communities.
As we left our final meeting, Abil, who speaks a little bit of English, put his arm around me, gave a smirk, and said, “I hope you are excited for work tomorrow, you’re famous now!”
The Night Train!
Just a little old!
Sitemates Bailey and Trey in our Qupay

Javid's bee farm
Javid and Muhamad
I liked this one
Is that a New Year's Santa I see there? Sorry Azerbaijan, NOT cool!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Azerbaijan Lesson #1

I just wanted to share a few facts about the Azerbaijani population, in general, that I recently came across. They are random facts about friendships, foreign policy, and media, but they paint a great picture of the Azerbaijani people in general and certainly will serve to motivate and inspire me as I begin to think of projects that I would like to implement here. The facts are compliments of an annual nationwide Caucasus Barometer conducted by the Caucasus Resource Research Center (CRRC). I will refrain from making comments on many of these facts because of a lack of knowledge on my part, but I hope to learn more as time passes and I integrate further into my community.

1.   Only 1% of Azerbaijanis approve of friendship with Armenians.
2.   In Azerbaijan, 27% of respondents said that they had no close friends. When the results are disaggregated by gender, they show a clear divide: women have far fewer close friends. Thirty-seven percent of women reported having no close friends compared to only 17% of men.
a.    Focusing on the settlement type, about a third of the female respondents asked in the capital and in other urban areas replied that they no friends compared with about half of rural women respondents.
b.   Why are so many Azerbaijani women, particularly older rural women, lacking close friendships? Perhaps the isolation of rural life combined with fewer possibilities to do communal activities is leaving women with no one to call a friend. Are they less likely to be involved in public life and activities outside the home? What could contribute to a more socially active and connected female population? This kind of fact and these queries are why I am here. I cannot wait to get started!
c.    My new site mate Bailey suggested that this may also be contributed to the divide between public and private life. Here, people do not really let people into the private life, which she believes stems from the fact that during Soviet times there was a lot in inter-spying going on.
3.   90 percent of the population chooses television as their primary source of information on current events with over 40 percent choosing family, friends, neighbors and colleagues as their second main source. A common held belief is that the influence of the media is especially strong in environments where citizens depend on a limited number of news sources (Azerbaijan).
4.   Furthermore, as the same theory on media effect also argues, those with little or no interest in politics are more prone to influence from the media. In Azerbaijan, 64 percent of people are not at all interested or hardly interested in foreign policy.

CRRC’s report, Armenian and Azerbaijani International News Coverage – Empirical Findings and Recommendations for Improvement, suggests, “while the media can amplify existing tensions and reinforce differences, it also has the potential to build confidence across existing fracture lines by covering a wider spectrum of issues, diversifying sources, representing more voices than just the elite, and consciously eliminating bias from coverage.” There is hope. Discussing issues beyond the conflict would be a great start. Let’s look at similarities:
“In both countries (Azerbaijan and Armenia) the biggest concern in 2009 was the need to reduce daily spending in basic expenditures, both are worried about western influence, both perceive poverty as the biggest threat to the world, and in both countries, while generally uncertain, a significant percentage hopes that their children will be better off than they are.”
These are the kinds of things that should be focused on. 

Let’s Make It Official!

Adam Sterling and Ministry Reps on stage
Fellow YD Gio and I with Adam Sterling
My Program Manager Tarana and I
9namite! (My cluster)

Swearing-in was quite the experience – Gesheng (awesome) as we like to call it in Azeri! It was the perfect mix of a graduation ceremony and an LA Lakers post-game press conference. From the beginning, the auditorium was filled with Azeri press. I was quickly summoned by my program directors to do a number of interviews. My Azeri has gotten fairly good since arriving, which is partly the reason why I was one of the “trainees” (now Volunteer) asked to be interviewed. Anyway, the initial questions were basic: “What is your name?”, “Where are you from?”, “What do you think of Azerbaijan?”, “What is your favorite Azeri dish?”. After a few successful responses, with little hesitation and few mistakes, the interview quickly got out of hand! The real questions began and I suddenly had no idea what was going on. The reporters began to mistake me for someone who hadn’t just started learning the language less than 3 months ago! I actually understood most of the questions being asked, but responding to multi-faceted, thought-provoking queries is a whole new ballgame! On top of that, bright spotlights were blinding me and large microphones were being shoved in my face. The elation and poise that had surfaced at the start of the interviews quickly dissipated into a blush, bug-eyed, sweaty mess! I retreated to my seat, defeated. My first “exclusive”, international interview experience did not go the way I had hoped. My attempt to become an Azeri media sensation overnight and capture the hearts and minds of all Azerbaijani’s was a failure!
Luckily, all was not lost! I was just mere moments away from being sworn in as an official United States Peace Corps volunteer! Equipped with my Azeri schoolboy zipper tie, I took my seat in the front row and watched as representatives to the various Azeri ministries, U.S. Charge d'Affaires in Azerbaijan Adam Sterling, and Country Director Meredith Dalton congratulated us on the completion of our service. It was a wonderful ceremony and was great spending time with my fellow AZ8s and the LCFs who worked so hard to get us where we are today.
Here is a link to an article about the ceremony:

That night, my family and I sat and watched every news program on TV, waiting for clips of my interviews and of the swearing-in ceremony in general. Surprisingly, every station had significant stories about the ceremony and my family got a kick out of watching me speak Azeri on national television. In one snippet, you could see Ulvi run by and wave his hand in front of the camera as I spoke.
I finished the night playing N∂rd with my host father, losing every single game to him!   


The last day: With our first order of business as volunteers, we decided to do something that we were not allowed to do as trainees. A quick trip to Baku for some McD’s seemed like the logical choice! It was great to take a trip with Crystal and Dan into Baku without having to notify anyone of our whereabouts, but it did make us realize that the next day we would be many hours apart and would only see each other occasionally. My cluster has been a tremendous support group and I am so grateful to have had them by my side during this, oftentimes, difficult adjustment period.
With this realization, a moment of sadness set in – although it was nothing a few strawberry milkshakes and Big Mac’s couldn’t take care of!


I figured that my move to adulthood (although I think many of my friends would agree that I never quite made that move) would mean the end of childish things like impromptu wrestling matches and sleepovers. It didn’t. For my Montreal/McGill readers, rooming with Mike Ting meant that I had both of these things in spades, as well as many uncomfortable cuddle sessions. In Azerbaijan, my final week has been one big wrestling tournament with my host brothers. I must admit, I will miss Nicat and Ulvi very much. They are wonderful boys who treated me like a real brother from day one. If the rest of the kids that I meet in Azerbaijan are anything like these two punks, this country has a very bright future.
My final night was a memorable one. First, I guested (the Peace Corps verb “to visit/be a guest”) with all of my neighbors in order to say goodbye and thank you for their hospitality. Afterwards, Dan and Crystal, along with my LCFs Rashad and Ilaha, came over to say goodbye. They stayed for a while and we ate strawberry/banana cake that my mother made. Once they left, we sat down for dinner. My mother prepared a very special meal; peroski’s (my favorite) and duck Levenge (a duck Nicat and I killed earlier today). By the time the meal was over, I must have eaten 25 peroski’s and half a duck! To end the night, my father presented me with my very own wooden N∂rd board!
As everyone prepared for bed, it became painfully obvious that my brothers were not going to let me sleep alone in peace tonight. They demanded to have a sleepover with me in my room… in my bed! As I attempted to kick them out of my room, we again started wrestling, but these kids are gluttons for punishment and just will NOT give up! Eventually I was the one who conceded. They let out a massive cheer that must have awoken the entire city, and then ran off to change into their pajamas. They were back in my room changed faster than Clark Kent can change into his Superman outfit in a telephone booth! 20 seconds later they were fast asleep, and taking up 95% of the bed. Never have I seen such small people take up so much space; it was remarkable. I slowly got ready for bed and then curled up next to them on my 5% of bed, sans pillow or blanket. That night, I slept like a baby, grateful to have been blessed with such a wonderful and loving family. I am forever indebted to the Ibayev family.

My host mother (Sevinj) and I
Ulvi and I...looking quite dapper if I do say so myself)
Tonight, I will take the night train to Balakan, where I will spend the next 2 years as a youth development facilitator! More to come!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

In Azerbaijan, Being Called Fat is a Compliment

Game Day!
The YD group post Game Day
The turkey tree
Kebabing with Ilaha and Rashad

The YD AZ8s facilitated two “Game Days” (Oyun Günü) with students at the schools where we did our language and technical sessions: Xirdalan and Masazir. The event at our school, School #9, wound up having 65 students from the 9th form participate. The goal was to increase community awareness of Peace Corps presence in Azerbaijan and strengthen relations with our current technical/language schools in Xirdalan and Masazir. It was a gender equal event and included the following events: 3-legged Race, Paper Airplane Competition, Health Trivia, Frisbee Toss, and a general game station. We ended the day with a dance and limbo party! We designed our “Game Day” based on the McGill Sports Camp model, wherein facilitators ran specific games while counselors were in charge of small groups of kids and brought them from station to station. This design allowed real personal connections to be made on the part of counselors, while also allowing facilitators to focus on teaching their game and challenging the kids without being too concerned with discipline. I was a counselor and really got to go crazy and have some fun with the kids! I was probably more of a handful for the facilitators than my kids were!
It was so wonderful seeing these kids with such beaming smiles on their faces! Nothing against the teachers of these schools – we have, in fact, met some extraordinary individuals who, like our own teachers back in the states, have a thankless job. Teachers here, on average, get paid less than $200/ month. They are also extremely restricted in that they are part of the systematic, Soviet-esque education system that completely frowns upon individualism and creativity. The kids are the victims of this system. It was heartbreaking when, during the paper airplane competition, my kids responded to instructions with completely blank stares. When they were told to decorate their newly finished airplanes they asked questions like, “What do I draw?” or “What colors do I use?” and just sat there. Imagine, 15 kids, markers and crayons in every color imaginable, free reign to do whatever they want, and not a single idea! One kid was bold enough to write his name on the underside of the wing. This hesitation persisted until we exclaimed that it was okay to use your imagination, that there was no wrong answer and they were not being graded.
Nevertheless, I've learned that, no matter what country you're in kids are all the same. The creativity, innocence, and excitement is there; in this case it just took a little extra push to have them come to life. Before I knew it, I was being pelted by rainbow colored airplanes from every direction! I know it seems like such a minor thing, such a small victory, but that is exactly what we were looking for, especially at this point in our service. My hope is that, not only will these kid’s creative juices continue to flow, but also that school itself will start to be associated with this “fun and creativity”. Many teachers came to the events as well. I hope that between the student and teachers who participated, they will begin to realize that there is so much more to education than merely what lies within the pages of an English composition book.


Thanksgiving here was a magical experience. As I mentioned in my last post, I regret not being home for the holidays, but I am among great people here. We held Thanksgiving at my LCF’s house. Her family miraculously gave us free reign over the kitchen for the entire day. Everyone was in charge of cooking a dish. I was given the task of getting us a bird, as I explained in my last post! Here, that doesn’t mean going down to the local Metro and snagging a frozen one from the freezer – it means buying a live one, fattening it up, killing it, plucking out the feathers, and gutting it. Based on US turkeys, I figured one would be plenty for 12 people. How wrong I was! After plucking and gutting and chopping, I realized that one was not enough! (By the way: baking a turkey is really not an option in most places here; ovens are either too small, or most of the time, non-existent, so we “kebab”ed ours). Anyway, with all the feathers and fat and guts gone, the thing maybe weighed 3 pounds when wet…makes you really appreciate the ole Butterball! So, day of, Dan and I went to the market and bought a second turkey. What didn’t cross our minds was how we were going to get the thing home. Sure enough, I gave the turkey wrangler the money and he gave me the live turkey by its feet. So, there we were, making the 15-minute walk home on the main road of the city with a live turkey in our hands. Strangely enough, no one seemed to notice or care. Only in Azerbaijan can you blend in while walking down the street with a live, gobbling turkey in hand!
The dinner itself was excellent and I was blown away by the resourcefulness my friends showed in their cooking abilities. We had all of the fixings: mashed potatoes, stuffing (cooked separate from the turkey of course), gravy, cranberry sauce (cranberries substituted for pomegranates), steamed green beans, peas, and carrots. This, of course, was accompanied by VERY terrible wine, and then followed by delicious apple pie, chocolate chip pumpkin bread, and chocolate cheesecake!


Tonight, I watched a bootleg version of “The Social Network” with my cluster. As terrible as the film was, it got me thinking of that other world, that world that “normal people” like me will never see. I’m talking about the world where counting starts in the 100’s of millions, the world that, in many regards, runs our world. I found it so fascinating just trying to imagine how the Mark Zuckerberg’s of the world live, how just a handful of ideas from just a handful of people essentially shape our world and all that we know. I couldn’t even begin to wrap my head around this concept. So, I started thinking about all that I would miss out on in life, especially while I was here, in tiny, “insignificant” Azerbaijan. The feeling extended to the exact subject of the movie, the social network, my social network. Every visit to facebook during my trips to the internet café reminds me of all that I am missing out on. The updates usually leave me yearning for home and all that I knew. Tonight, however, after walking my friend home, it hit me. I am living! This is it! I may not ever be worth 25 billion dollars, and I may not have been able to attend "Graffiti Party 2010" at Gertz, but I’m living and learning more than I could have ever imagined – far beyond my wildest dreams. To most, and even myself sometimes, my daily routine might seem menial, and my job irrelevant, but at this very moment I am content. I am engaged and I am eager.
Can you pick out what's different about this picture? 
The crew cooking our Thanksgiving feast

Monday, November 22, 2010

Baseball and Sacrifices: July 4th in November!

The grillmaster at work
Our picnic table, notice the hind leg hanging in the background on the right and the intestines and head on the ground to the left!

Nothing like eating a freshly grilled piece of meat while the decapitated head of the animal sits at your feet, it’s lifeless eyes staring at you. I almost felt bad about savagely tearing at the late sheep’s tender shoulder, almost. This was my Gurban holiday!

Gurban holiday (the holiday of sacrifice) is one of the most celebrated holidays in Azerbaijan, and in the Muslim world. At my house, Gurban is the perfect combination of Thanksgiving and July 4th/Canada Day! It all began a week before. Nicat’s uncle pulled up to the house in his tiny 2-door sedan. Nicat asked me to help him. When I asked why, he said that the sheep for the Gurban holiday were in the back of the sedan. Live sheep in the back of his car? How? To my surprise, there were actually 2 sheep in the back of the sedan! PETA would definitely have had something to say about this! Anyway, one of the days of (it is a two day holiday), November 16, I had language class in the morning, but after that, my cluster all made their way over to my house where we watched my host-father slaughter a sheep. The sheep was skinned and chopped up into 12 separate bags containing 1 kilo of meat each. These bags were distributed to other families and friends in the area as recognition of my family’s love and thanks.

Of course, no holiday, especially one in Azerbaijan, would be complete without a feast! My host-father and mother prepared a delectable spread of kebabs (grilled on a makeshift spit in the backyard), pickled tomatoes and onions (unspeakably delicious), cherry juice, bread, and about 10 different kinds of cakes and candies. I think I ate about half of that sheep myself. Being outside grilling, celebrating with family, and giving thanks for the friends and family in our lives couldn’t help but send me down memory lane. I expected to get a little homesick around this time of year, first seeing Azeris celebrate such a momentous holiday with one another, and then watching as my own holiday season flew by from half-way across the world. However, as nice as it would be to be around my own family and friends back home, I am around family and friends here, and I don’t feel homesick at all. The Azeris and my fellow PCTs that I have met thus far have been so remarkably hospitable that I feel completely at home and happy here, now.

In other news, my friend Brad came to Khirdalan this past Sunday, our one day off. I was recently given baseball gear by a departing PCV. So, on Sunday, equipped with my Expos hat, instead of our usual soccer game, Brad and I introduced the neighborhood to the sport of baseball, and in particular, the games “500” and “Pickle”. Despite the language barrier, and the confusion with baseball being neither a contact sport, nor a sport that requires the use of your feet when throwing and catching, it was a fabulous success. The entire neighborhood was entertained for hours! There was quite a crowd watching us as well. The only thing stranger than an American playing soccer is Azerbaijanis playing baseball!

On a more serious note, I was meaning to comment on the recent parliamentary elections that took place here in Azerbaijan on November 7, the 4th parliamentary elections since the fall of the Soviet Union. According to the Peace Corps mission, it is my responsibility to:
1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women. 
2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served.
3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans.
Because of this 3rd proclamation, I feel the need, however brief it is, to inform the readers of the current evens of this country. The elections were to vote for new members of the 125-seat parliament for its next 5-year term under a majoritarian election system with only one round of voting. Although the elections were peaceful, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), who sent more than 400 monitors to the elections, found that “the conduct of these elections overall was not sufficient to constitute meaningful progress in the democratic development of the country.” Azerbaijani opposition has frequently accused the West of muting its criticism for fear of losing out to Russia in the battle for Azerbaijan's oil and gas in the Caspian Sea.
The US State Department, however, agreed with the findings, asserting that the:
Pre-election environment was characterized by a lack of balanced media coverage of candidates, continued restrictions on fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression, and a deficient candidate registration process that, taken together, resulted in an uneven playing field for candidates. On Election Day, observers from the U.S. Embassy in Baku, like their OSCE/ODIHR counterparts, noted serious violations of election procedures, including ballot box stuffing.
There are, however, positives to take out of these elections. The OSCE/ODHIR noticed that “some technical aspects of the election, including centralized registration and the inclusion of record numbers of domestic observers, constituted improvements, as did a modest increase in the percentage of female candidates.” These are very important improvements that must not be overlooked. Inshallah, things will only improve from here. For more information on Azerbaijan, and the following blog,, are wonderful resources. I have many other news sources if anyone is interested, just ask.

 Lastly, I had my counterpart conference on Thursday. I cannot tell you how excited I am! My counterpart is a wonderful old woman who speaks absolutely NO English! She is incredibly bright, and despite my language deficiencies, we had wonderful conversations about the next 2 years. She has high hopes, as do I, and is so excited to begin working with me. She trusts me completely and is willing to entertain any ideas I have. I really believe that she is grateful for having me and fully understands that I am a volunteer who is to be her partner, NOT her employee. She also made it clear that she does not want me rushing into anything. This is a policy that Peace Corps deeply supports, but she brought it up herself. She firmly believes that getting to know my site and my community and gaining people’s trust is my first task before any concrete work can begin. I am so fortunate for everything and cannot wait to begin my service!

PS, for my cluster’s Thanksgiving party, I was in charge of getting the turkey. I successfully got the bird. Nevertheless, I must admit that, as embarrassing as it is, I could not bring myself to kill the thing and had to have my 15-year-old brother do it for me. They got a great laugh out of my apprehension. Later, they told me it was okay, and that I needed to start smaller. So, this week it seems as though I will be killing our dinner, a chicken. 
The boys hard at work

July 4th Azerbaijan style!

Friday, November 12, 2010

At Last!

Nate, Dan, and I at an Irish Pub (Finnegan's) in Baku

The grave of former president Heydar Aliyev
The largest flag in the world, on the shores of the Caspian

Martyr's Lane: Dedicated to those killed by the Soviet Army in Baku during Black January in 1990
I held off writing my next entry for so long in order to have something truly exciting to talk about in this post! Voila, permanent site placement! It doesn’t get much more exciting than that! I am very thrilled to inform you all that I have been assigned to Balakan, the northern most region of Azerbaijan. For the next 2 years, I will be living and working in this mountain region that is bordered by Georgia to the west and Russia, specifically Dagestan, to the east. I have little information to offer you all in terms of a description of the region. All I can tell you is that it is exactly what I was looking for and I am so thrilled that my program manager was able to place me in this beautiful part of the country. Aesthetically, Balakan is a small region in the Caucus mountains range and is endowed with many natural wonders. I look forward to exploring the many mountain rivers and verdant forests that occupy most of this bountiful land. This will certainly be a pleasant transition from the bustling, garbage burning, diesel smoking streets of Xirdalan and Sumgayit. I hope that being around such untamed wilderness will afford me the opportunity to initiate projects and clubs focused on environmental responsibility and sustainability.

Speaking of project ideas, I have the unique position of being paired up with two different organizations in Balakan. You see, every PCV is matched with a host organization in their permanent site that correlates with their expertise. Organizations from all over the country apply to work with PCVs. My first organization is the Azerbaijan Women’s Rights Protection Society. From what I have been told thus far, this quaint, 2 room center carries out annual events, including training seminars and forums, has a number of clubs, and hosts round table discussions. The organization also has a youth unit that focuses on capacity building and education. This is, I believe, where my expertise will be most utilized.
My second organization is the Ministry of Youth and Sport. How I will work with this government department remains to be seen. The Ministry of Y&S, I have been told, organizes civil and governmental activities and events related to the problems of youth and their families. They also serve as advisory assistants to youth in need.

My new site.
Welcome to Balakan.
I chose Balakan specifically. I wanted a challenge; I wanted to be a trailblazer so to speak. The sites and the work that volunteers do varies so much, and although all the work in every region is important, I wanted to enter a region as one of the first PCVs to ever work there. Thus far, Balakan has only ever had two TEFLs. They have been there for the past year. In Peace Corps, TEFLs serve as the pioneers, usually entering new regions before anyone else. In December, I, along with a CED (community economic development) named Trey, will move to Balakan to begin our work.  Trey is a funny story! It is such a wonderful coincidence that we were placed in the same region. Trey and I were in the same hotel room, essentially, in Philadelphia for staging. We were seated next to each other on both legs of the flight to Azerbaijan, and we were roommates during welcome week in Baku! It is only fitting that we will spend the next 2 years working side by side. I am excited to learn about his economic development projects, and I know he is equally excited to work with the youth in any projects that I undertake.
More on Balakan to come as I receive new information. I meet with my new counterparts next week for a luncheon where we will get acquainted and discuss our expectations for one another.
Ulvi proud of the pizza he made.
Toy Plov (rice cooked like a cake with chicken inside)
This week, there has been a lot of talk about post-Soviet Azerbaijan vs. USSR, and the differences between the two eras. It has been so interesting hearing the varying perspectives. The lesson I have most taken away from such intriguing discussions is that Azerbaijan truly is a country in limbo. Half stuck in Soviet times, yet slowly inching forward. The country is on the brink of transition, yet a significant percentage does not want to move forward; they speak fondly of the order and certainty that accompanied Soviet rule. I realize now how delicate this country is, how uncertain it is of its new identity and the direction it wants to move in. I realize now, more than ever, the importance of listening and understanding, as there is so much more to this country than meets eye.

I will end this blog with a cute little story. The other day I got a knock on my door. When I opened the door, Nicat and my mother handed me a 5-manat bill and told me that it was from my host father. Confusedly, I asked Nicat why I was being given this. He told me, “because,” indicating that it was a gift. I immediately walked into the living room to kindly refuse the sweet gesture. What a mistake that was! When I tried giving him the money back, my father’s eye met mine and I saw in them a rage only matched by the devil! He berated me for what seemed like 5 minutes. Following the verbal scolding, I graciously accepted the money, shook his hand to attempt to regain some semblance of manliness and sat down on the couch, tail between my legs. A minute or two later, after absolute silence, he smiled and spoke a few words to Nicat. Nicat translated that Oktay had said that he wanted to give his sons a small gift, and that because he now considered me one of his three sons, I should accept the gift and be happy.
Later that night, Nicat came barging into my room doing a celebratory dance. He pulled a 10-manat bill out of his pocket and bragged that he had received a bigger gift than I. For my family, 10 manat is a very significant amount of money.
I congratulated him and asked what he was going to spend it on. I thought I was going to have to encourage him to save it instead of spending it frivolously as most 15 year olds would. How wrong I was. He left me speechless when he told me that his friend’s father had just died, so the 10 manat would be given to his friend as a way to help. I insisted that he give my 5 manat to his friend as well, but he refused, claiming that it was his responsibility to make sure his friend had all the money he needed during such difficult times. When’s the last time a 15-year-old boy you know did something so selfless?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Azerbaijani Mud Slapping

No, this is not actually a cultural thing, it’s just a game played by two immature Americans (myself included) when given a volcano of mud to play with!
YD Crew
Snakes: Don't Pass Through
The Musical Talents of The Family
Ulvi Checking Himself Out...Lookin' Buff!
Learning to Wrestle With the Boys

Yesterday, AZ8s went on a cultural day, venturing to Gobustan and the nearby mud volcanoes. Gobustan, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is famous for its prehistoric, sacred rock carvings. There are more than 6,000 carvings dating back to between 5,000 and 40,000 years. The mud volcanoes are self-explanatory. However, approximately 30 minutes walk away from the site, the bus drivers stopped and refused to drive any further. We were forced to walk the rest of the way. I did not mind the trek, as we actually came across a small oil field with little, exposed pools of thick, bubbling Azeri oil (picture to come). I do not have many pictures of this site. A fellow PCT, Josh, was kind enough to take my camera and keep it out of danger as I childishly frolicked around the mud volcanoes (pictures below).

Over the past week or so, I have warmed up to my host-father enough to get him to teach me how to play N∂rd. This game, along with dominoes, are staples for the Azeri men. I assume it is very similar to Backgammon, but seeing as I have no idea how to play Backgammon, I really have no idea. Either way, you can see men playing N∂rd everywhere, from the Cayxanas (tea houses) and benches in the park to store fronts. I am pleased to say that I have become quite good at the game. Oktay, my father, does not speak a word of English, so I was forced to learn by having him beat my ass and mumble instructions to me for hours on end. He would correct my mistakes by brushing my hands aside and moving for me, without really explaining what I did wrong. Eventually, he stopped correcting my mistakes, and would just shake his head in disgust and laugh whenever I made an incorrect move. I love the guy but he clearly underestimates the language barrier here! Finally, I caught on. The other night, I beat him twice. I think he was more surprised than I was! As it became clear that I would win, he would nonchalantly start a new game without really recognizing that I had just won. We continued playing until he had beaten me enough times to restore his supremacy.

In other news, on October 12, Azerbaijan won in soccer against Turkey, 1-0. It was, in the words of FIFA 2009, a “brilliant corner”. I am not really a fan of soccer. What is amazing, however, is that although I knew the win was completely unprecedented, I had no idea just how important it was. To this day, the only thing shown on the few news channels that my family receives is highlights of the game! It’s everywhere and Azerbaijanis are extremely proud of their team!

This week, we have our mid-PST language proficiency exams! Wish me luck.

Sumgayit and the Caspian Sea
Your Neighborhood Fruit and DVD Store
We also have our site-placement interviews, where I will be able to speak one-on-one with my program manager about exactly what kind of permanent site I am looking for. I also have 4 conversation clubs to teach on Tuesday and Wednesday…busy week!!!
Fish Anyone?
Very Comfortable Bathroom!
Pre Mud Slapping
Post Mud Slapping
I May Have Fallen Into to Volcano