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?


  1. Wow, very impressive story. You know I wouldn't have done that, I would have gone to buy a G.I.Joe. I'm so glad that you have been placed in an area that you are excited to go to.

    Lots of Love,

    You know why I got the first post?? Because I'm American and you're in America

  2. Just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and to let you know we're all thinking of you. 2011 is going to be a fascinating year for you and for all of us following your blog. Also, early happy birthday!!!!
    Take care Jake.
    Much love, Aunt Reth