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.