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

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tuesday Morning Football

That’s right, who needs Monday Night Football when you can have Tuesday Morning Football?! I have spent the last few days in Lenkaran, a fairly large city on the eastern coast, just north of the Iranian border. I travelled here with my fellow PCT Brad, a teacher from Washington State. We came down here for our PCV visit, an opportunity to job shadow a PCV who has been in-country for over a year. We had the good-fortune of staying with Eli, a fellow YD from Alaska. Our first night with Eli, his sitemate Aaron, from Wisconsin, came over with his PCT visitor, Eugene; they are both CED and Aaron works in the local Access Bank. We cooked baked pasta and garlic bread, a refreshing change from my usual diet, and learned about what we can expect in the upcoming months as we complete our PST and move to our permanent sites. Both Aaron and Eli were incredibly welcoming and equally as helpful. I cannot thank them enough for the insight they provided us.

Eventually, Aaron and Eugene went home and we all went to bed, only to wake up at 5am in order to watch MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL…except here it was Tuesday morning! Yes, Eli has internet in his home and he borrowed a projector from one of his offices in order to put the game on the “big screen” so to speak. So, at 5am we were all sprawled out in Eli’s room watching what I think was a Dutch feed of MNF. Unfortunately, the game turned out to be the most boring and disappointing football game I have ever seen…oh well!

The next day, after a warm bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon that Eli had sent from back home, we followed him to work. Eli runs a number of clubs throughout the city, from a TOEFL and GRE prep course for University students interested in studying abroad, to basic English conversation clubs, movie clubs, and even an environmental club focused on keeping the city clean. Many of these clubs take place in the local IREX center. IREX is an international nonprofit that provides innovative programs worldwide, and has numerous computer/resource centers throughout Azerbaijan. Eli is also part of ABLE (Azerbaijani Boys Leadership Experience), a one-week sleep away camp facilitated by PCVs. This is a camp I very much want to be a part of in the future! We sat in the back and watched as he taught a TOEFL prep course. Afterwards, we explored the city, weaving our way through the expansive city bazaar. Then, we met about 10 other PCVs for lunch. Some were AZ6s who will be leaving in a few weeks, while others were AZ7s, whom I hope to have a lot of interactions with over the next year. At lunch I had Tursh Kababs, which are mutton meatballs in a tart green sauce. This dish is unique to Lenkaran and is absolutely delicious!

After lunch, we sat in on a basic debate club, where the students discussed the meaning of happiness and argued whether men or women in Azerbaijan, and America for that matter, were happier. Although at some points getting a response from anyone was like pulling teeth, I was generally very impressed by how insightful some of these students were, despite the language barrier.

That night, Brad, Eli, and I cooked lentil burritos and looked through Eli’s pictures of his past year here. Lentils, I have learned, are a fantastic protein substitute for meat here in Azerbaijan, which can be very expensive and sometimes spoiled. My cooking duties were to grate the cheese and pick the tiny rocks out of the bag of lentils prior to cooking them. Mission accomplished! We feasted like kings that night! I also enjoyed looking through Eli’s photos. It was great to see, step-by-step, month-by-month, his experiences as a PCV and a YD facilitator. The following night, we went to Aaron’s house and met a number of AZ6’s who are rapping up their service. We made pizza and drank wine long into the night. As I have learned, PST can be a very long, arduous, and tiring process. Looking at the photomontage of Eli’s life over the past year, spending time with AZ6’s on their way out, and this trip in general, has served to energize and excite me about all that is to come! I cannot wait!

In other news, visa services at Baku’s international airport have been “permanently” shut down. What this means is that Baku will no longer issue visas to foreign citizens upon arrival. Foreigners must now submit a letter of invitation to a local Azerbaijan embassy requesting a visa prior to travel. Many embassies here in Baku have confirmed that they received no warning of the changes. Without any official statements being made by the government, hypotheses as to why this border restriction has been made are widespread. Some suspect it is simply an arbitrary bureaucratic decision; “a Ministry of Foreign Affairs consular department representative, who asked not to be named, answered that: ‘The purpose is that the president ordered the changes.’” Other are associating the closure of visa services with the upcoming elections, suspecting that this closure is far too coincidental, and that it is an attempt to “restrict international scrutiny of the country’s November 7 parliamentary elections.” With no official comments being made, and few in the world even aware that this closure has occurred, these hypotheses will remain just that. Whatever that actual reason, I fear for the repercussions of this decision. The stricter requirements will likely deter businesspeople and tourists from traveling to Azerbaijan and accelerate the process away from democracy. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Witchcraft and Wizardry

Who knew that being sick could be so inconvenient…and culturally enlightening?!?!
This week, technically Tuesday and Wednesday, we began our conversation clubs (more on these below).  These clubs are a huge deal for PCT’s, as it is our first opportunity to work with locals directly and get a taste of what our job for the next 2 years entails. Unfortunately, everyone in our cluster has recently become ill. I held off longer than anyone, but in the past couple of days, it seems to have hit me the worst. Not only do we have these conversation clubs now, we also have 4 hours of language training every morning…4 VERY important hours that cannot be made up. Despite these illnesses, my fellow PCT’s have been real troopers, and we are all still going strong.

The first night I became sick, I was unable to sleep, AT ALL. At 8am, I got dressed and staggered my way to our class. 8 hours later, I finished my language class, completed 2 conversation clubs, and went home. At home, things got interesting! To my host family, I clearly did not look well. After guzzling some mystery liquid they gave me (made up of herbs and fruit), they had me lie down on the couch and performed some traditional remedy that I will never forget! They are called Bankas: small, round, glass jars. First, my host-father poured oil all over my back and gave me a painfully deep massage. After, one by one, they put a small drop of some liquid inside the Banka, lit a match inside of it, and then suctioned it to my back. They did this 17 times. They then put 37 blankets on top of me and told be to rest for about 30 minutes, at which time they quite painfully pulled the jars off. The picture below shows the after effect. By the way, the marks have not faded at all! Supposedly, the Bankas, which families use a lot back home in their original region of Imishli, are supposed to warm you up/relax you/suck out the bad that is inside of you. The darker the circles that are left behind, the sicker you are. The family was clearly very distraught with the color of my circles. I didn’t dare try and explain that they might just be that color because of my fair Irish/ginger skin; my Azeri is not that good! Anyway, it was a very cool experience, even though it really didn’t do anything to cure my sickness!

Regarding the conversation clubs, they are a blast! I have two groups that come successively: one group of 10th and 11th forms, and one of 9th graders. Although it may be easier to explain to all of you readers, it is another thing to explain this to Azeri teenagers who only speak a few words of English. I AM NOT AN ENGLISH TEACHER!!! I do not teach grammar. My conversation clubs are not classes, but opportunities for kids to speak English and practice what they are learning in their actual English classes. I merely facilitate. Thus, I try and have as much fun with the kids as possible. We play games that involve speaking English, learning vocabulary, and practicing basic conversation. The two games that have jumped ahead as the clear favorites are “Simon Says” (to learn body parts) and “Musical Chairs.” In my version of musical chairs, the kids move around listening to the cheesiest, mainstream, top 40 American music I could find (I may have added Celine’s “All By Myself” and Alanis’s “Head Over Feet). When the music stops, they sit down. However, while they listen to the music, the must write down words that they recognize. I then check everyone’s sheet. If they do not have a new word every time, they lose their chair and someone who was previously out gets to come back in. It is a hoot to watch these kids play!

Tomorrow, Thursday, a PCV is coming to speak at our YD technical session. He is staying at my house for the night, so Nicat has informed me that we will be sacrificing one of our ducks and one of our hens to celebrate. Inshallah my stomach is feeling better!

PS: Regarding the title of my last post, “If Aslan = Lion, Does Azerbaijan = Narnia,” our cluster has confirmed that Azerbaijan is, in fact, Narnia. The Azeri word for pomegranate, one of Azerbaijan’s staple crops, is, wait for it…NAR. Coincidence? I think not!

Also, on Monday, I head to Lankaran for 4 days for my PCV visit. 
Check it out:
Hopefully I don't get lost and stroll into Iran!

Western toilet on the right, our squat toilets on the left
Apple Sale in the Market
Ulvi and Nicat
The Butcher

Thursday, October 7, 2010

If Aslan = Lion, Does Azerbaijan = Narnia?

Culture Shock #1,872:
Today was a hub day, which means that all AZ8s met in Sumgayit for general PST. On the bus on the way home I was talking with a fellow PCT from Colorado and Rashad the LCF. We were discussing the American university system and graduate school opportunities. Two elderly Azeri women entered the full bus. Naturally, Rashad and I rose to give them our seats. However, we continued our conversation with Kiersten.  Bear in mind, Rashad is an Azeri. A few minutes after the women sat down, they began telling Kiersten very sternly to refrain from talking to us because it was rude and inappropriate for a woman to talk with men on a public bus! A few minutes after that, another female LCF (Azeri) was hushed by the same women for giving language instructions to a male PCT. It was as if the world was crumbling before their eyes! These women were absolutely beside themselves! We spent the rest of the bus ride in dead silence. To the credit of modern Azeris, Rashad explained that some old women have a rather out of date view of public behavior, and that most Azeris would have no problem with such behavior, especially given that we are foreigners and it was not sexual in any way. Only in Azerbaijan!

My New Workout Program:
I have more or less settled in, and for those of you who know me, that predominantly means being able to workout regularly. My new workout program, however, is not exactly what I had expected. On the weekends, I do my cardio by playing soccer and learning wrestling with all of the boys in the neighborhood. I exercise my back by doing however many pull ups (on the gazebo bar) the boys demand I do; it’s a challenge of manhood. This is usually followed by a deep tissue massage as the boys grope me to feel my muscles! Azeri boys and men are, in fact, quite physically affectionate towards one another, and have no problem feeling ANY muscle they desire, or walking down the street arm in arm. Nicat (15) will often rest his head on my shoulder as I do my language homework at home. I find this rather paradoxical given the cultural norms against public affection for women. It is certainly contrary to Western traditions, but you get used to it pretty quickly. I go on runs after work when the weather permits. They are certainly not like runs back home. It is more like parkour, avoiding speeding buses, jumping from cracked sidewalk to cracked sidewalk, avoiding puddles the size of the Caspian, and occasionally taking the long way around groups of old, judgmental men, or stray, rabid dogs. Personally, I am more afraid of the old men! O ya, and I am usually being followed by 20 or so young boys. For weight training, Nicat and Ulvi come in my room and we blast American rap music and do pushups and sit-ups. They have also begun to take a liking to Johnny Cash and James Taylor among others, however they are unconvinced when I tell them that Celine Dion is the greatest artist of all time…I’m still working on them! Ulvi sits on my back while I do pushups, and Nicat spends the entire time feeling my biceps and looking at his physique in the reflection of the shiny finish of my closet doors. I genuinely treasure this time with the boys. They are such great kids, and they find joy in every little thing.
Additionally, I have begun doing yoga with Dan and Erika on Dan’s balcony. Thank god no one can really see us. Who knows what they’d say about that!

Diet as of late:
I cannot say enough about my host-mother. She is an incredibly generous, hard-working, selfless lady, much like another mom I know! She is a wonderful cook. For breakfast, I never eat much. I have a warm glass of milk, and I mean REAL milk straight from the cow! I also have a cup of tea (of course) and some bread and jam. If she has apples, I bring a couple to work. When I come home for lunch, she has a full meal prepared EVERYDAY!
Lately, dinner has been fantastic, although meat has been a little sparse because prices have apparently risen lately. Every dinner (as is Azeri tradition) is accompanied by cucumbers, tomatoes, pickled vegetables, especially eggplant, and bread…SO MUCH BREAD. Along with these accompaniments, I have had:
Dolma (my favorite): Grape leaves with meat and rice inside covered in real yogurt.
Plov: Rice made with milk and meat broth and beans with sautéed squash.
Peroskis: Fried dough filled with potatoes or meat and vegetables or a combination of it all.
Salted Fish: And when I mean salted, I mean it is actually Fished Salt!!!
Hamburgers: My mother wanted to make me an “American treat”! It consisted of hot dog pieces cut thinly in between two thick pieces of bread with tomatoes and cucumber! I’m going to have to give her a FAIL on this attempt, as sweet as it was, but she makes up for it with just about every other meal I have!

I have also learned a little more about my family from others in the neighborhood. The other night, Dan’s host family introduced us to an English teacher who lives in the neighborhood. She and her family live in the largest house around. Her English is excellent, and both of her children are university students. One is fluent in English, the other in German. Clearly, they are very well off relative to most people in the area. I also get the impression that Dan’s family is quite comfortable. Mine on the other hand, is a little different. My mother is not nearly as publically social as these other moms. For the most part, Sevinc stays in the house working. Additionally, the other fathers seem to be home quite a bit. Oktay, on the other hand, goes to work very early and gets home very late, 7 days a week. Not only that, Nicat is the English teacher’s pupil, and she mentioned that Nicat and Ulvi were both quite rough around the edges academically and behaviorally given the region their family comes from (Imisli in the southwest). This was not meant to be insulting at all. Khirdalan is just a far more developed, forward-thinking city. The Ibayev family (my family) are dear friends with everyone and are very highly respected, but it seems to me that they are a little more blue collar.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Quick Soccer Update

I am being blessed with decent internet access this second, so I just wanted to update you all on the epic soccer game that took place this morning. My neighborhood is a square apartment complex, with a large open center. This middle area has a small metal gazebo and is usually occupied by men who smoke cigarettes and size me up as I pass by on the way to the school. This is where the soccer game took place, and was it ever epic! After many introductions and requests (more like demands) by the older boys to do pull ups on the gazebo in order to prove my manhood (thank god for my “Body by JMart”!), Nate, Dan and I formed a team with many of the younger kids and played against the older boys. Goals were formed with the poles of power lines and big rocks, and play was stopped every few minutes or so to allow women and speeding taxis to pass by. The game grew into a 10 on 10 battle, with another 20 or so older men and younger kids looking on. The boys were all fantastic, but I am proud to say that we pulled through with the upset. I think the score was 10-9; that was of course after one of the older boys joined our side! Either way, everyone had an amazing time, and everyone insisted that we play again next Sunday! It looks like I’ve made a few new friends! It also looks like I need to buy a few soccer balls! I am pleased to have made my way into what seems to be the main circle of teenage boys in the community; this bodes well for future YD projects! They are fantastically energetic, intelligent, and polite young men. Next objective: get to know the women and girls. This is sure to be a far more challenging task!

PS: Following the soccer game, I spent the afternoon learning about the techniques of wrestling, the national sport of Azerbaijan. Great fun!!! 

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Sorry, Men Only

Hands down, tonight was the best so far! There was no special event or anything; I just really connected with my family. The day was particularly difficult. Following a long morning of language training, we had more program training. Although long and tedious, I am very pleased with the way the YD program training is progressing. Today, we began talking about specific project ideas, for both PCT and as a PCV. Everyone was able to give their ideas in an open forum, creating a lot of buzz and energizing the group! My head hasn’t stopped working, producing project idea after project idea. I look forward to sitting down with my YD program managers, Tarana and Fuad, to discuss my ideas and their feasibility. I won’t get into any specifics yet, as that is still a long ways away. I have a lot of work to do before the fun stuff begins! At this point, the only project we are guaranteed to facilitate is an English conversation club in our community. It is a simple, fail-proof project that always creates a lot of excitement and builds community relationships, credibility, trust, and experience. It is the standard project that YD’s build during PCT. We will start planning next week.

As for the night, upon coming home, I took a couple of hours for myself. I showered, worked out in my room, slept, and did work. After that, I felt energized. During dinner, everything seemed to click. To the best of our abilities, we discussed politics (Barack Obama vs. Ilham Alyiev), Sports (boxing particularly), my host-father’s job (railway worker, as well as house builder/electrician/plumber). They asked more about America and Canada, about my mother (Mom, Sevinc wants to know EVERYTHING about you), and about how much money my parents made hahaha (I successfully explained that in America, that was not an appropriate question). The father was very animated tonight. He talked about his work, his upcoming vacation, and also gave me tips about haggling in the market. The fact that so much was shared between us, regardless of how long it took, is very exciting and a HUGE success for me. On top of that, they told me that they will be taking me to Baku in November, once I am allowed to go. PCTs are only allowed to go to Baku after November 1. So, all in all, this night served as a huge morale booster. I am extremely pleased with my language progress, as well as my understanding of Azerbaijani culture, as my behavior is best reflected in how the family treats me, especially the father. The boys are always friendly and ready to speak and play. I am hoping to organize a soccer game among PCTs nearby and my host-brothers’ and their friends soon.

Yesterday, Saturday, we had a half-day of training. After school, my cluster moseyed around Khirdalan, visiting Heydar Alyiev Park and the Egyptian Park (a gift to Azerbaijan from Egypt). After lunch, things got interesting. I admit I did feel bad, but after just mere moments, I quickly got over the guilt. You see, in Azerbaijan, it is inappropriate for women to drink in public. Teahouses and bars (which are more like meeting halls) are for men only; we couldn’t help it though, we were just so craving an ice-cold brew. So, two of my fellow PCT’s (Nate and Dan) and I left the girls in the park and went to a bar in the market. It was one of the best experiences I have had so far. We drank (the beer was very good and very strong…rumor has it they ferment it with Vodka to accelerate the process), vented about the program, and discussed our aspirations for the upcoming 2 years. In the midst of cigarette smoke, groveling old men, and intense games of backgammon (the choice game for all men), I actually felt comfortable, strangely enough. The three of us played cards for a few hours. At first, the stares were constant. Playing cards are only associated with gambling here, and thus are not considered appropriate for anyone except older men. By the end, however, people were interested more than anything, casually looking over their shoulders and even joining us at our bench to watch as Dan ran the table!

I returned home to the wonderful news that one of the pet rabbits had given birth. Baby rabbits are The. Cutest. Thing. Ever!!! After enjoying the absurd cuteness that is a baby rabbit, I was privy to two new pieces of information. First, November 16 is the Gurban holiday. On this day, it is typical for all families that can afford it to sacrifice a sheep. My family can! This year, in the backyard, Nicat has proudly told me that he (15) is finally old enough to be given the honor of…well, you know. I’ll keep it at that for those of you who actually like sheep for anything else other than their deliciousness (Mom).
Secondly, and I should have guessed this, but Oktay, my host-father, was in the Soviet army when he was younger! After dinner, he showed me where he fought; as far as I can understand he was in Afghanistan and Turkmenistan back in the day fighting the Taliban. Short of locations, it was difficult to understand the war stories he explained to the boys (Basa Dusmuram). Very cool all the same.
Now, I have a soccer game planned between the boys in the neighborhood and a few PCT’s. Wish me luck!