|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 N∂rd 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!|