Thursday, January 13, 2011

Never Take Your Telephone Into The Bathroom

The Ibayev family with their New Year's tree (Yolka)
Old, scary cemetery
The first frost
Creepy cemetery again
Above the clouds
The fog covering the city of Balakan below

I write this blog to you on a most unfortunate day. As you can probably guess from the title of the post, I brought my telephone (my lifeline in this country) into the bathroom. What happened next you can probably guess.
The most painful thing is that the night was going so well. The previous night, at the dinner table, my mother and father had asked what I do for food when I travel and am away from the house, subtly implying that because I am a man, I am completely helpless. Let’s be real, I am completely useless. It’s no secret; I won’t deny it. Kate and StevO (my birth parents) will be the first to attest to this fact. However, I do know how to cook a thing or two. My parents here assumed that I paid to go to a restaurant every night I was away…which lately has been a lot. On a Peace Corps budget? Please!
I explained to them that the volunteers usually pitch in a manat or two and cook something together. My host father then asked what the male volunteers do while the females cook the meal. I quickly corrected them, explaining that we all try to contribute in the kitchen (or in the liquor department). My host mother, particularly, refused to believe that I could contribute in the kitchen in any way, shape, or form. She asked what we had cooked on my previous trip. When I told her we had cooked lentil fajitas, and that I had been in charge of cooking the lentils, she immediately challenged me to cook the same meal for the family the following night.
This takes us to the fateful night of January 12, 2011. The meal was a tremendous success. I made lentil fajitas and salsa. However, most of the way through cooking, my mother, who was watching me intently the whole time, informed me that I would be the only one eating the food because no one else wanted it. She would cook something else for the rest of the family. Clearly disheartened given that this feast I had prepared was nearly ready, she gave in and said she would “try” it. By the time the meal was over, not a scrap was left on the table, my family had asked me to cook pizza on Sunday, and the Azeri food she had prepared had not been touched! Not only was this a huge morale boost for myself, but I also think I taught them a valuable nutrition lesson. Almost all meals in this country, although delicious, are overwhelmed with massive amounts of butter, oil, and salt. This meal contained only a tablespoon of oil (to sauté the vegetables). I distinctly overheard my family afterwards discussing how amazing it was that none of their usual staples were used, yet it still tasted so good. Hopefully this lesson sticks…for their sake and mine!
Furthermore, women in this country spend a lot of time in this country cooking. This meal was so quick, easy, and cheap to make. I discussed with my host mother afterwards that she does not need to spend hours in the kitchen – that delicious and nutritious meals can be made in very little time and for very little money. This is an especially important lesson for a woman who works fulltime.
I digress, the night was going so well until I stepped into the now dreaded bathroom. I will spare you the details, but it seemed to happen in slow motion. The phone hit the ground and then conveniently bounced into the tiny hole that lay at my feet, falling to its final resting place. Take my word for it; there is NO possible way of retrieving it.
My hot family was wonderful about helping me…after about 10 minute of hysterical laughing. Phones are a volunteer’s lifeline here, not only to connect with other volunteers, but also to mobilize the community and organize clubs and events. It is an essential tool. My family assured me that it happens to Azeri’s more often than not. The next morning my friend Farid accompanied me to Zaqatala where I spent half of my month’s living allowance purchasing a new phone. Lesson learned!


On a more positive note, my time in Balakan since my last post has been tremendously busy and exciting! The semblance of my own schedule is starting to slowly appear. On Monday I went into work with only ideas for clubs. It is now Thursday night and I currently have 8 clubs, including an exercise club for girls, an English club for the nurses at the Children’s Hospital, and 5 conversation clubs for students and adults of various proficiency levels. I have made tremendous contacts and things are really beginning to pick up. After going to various schools to introduce myself to classes, children are calling my name out in the streets and asking how I am in their usually broken English.
Some of my students have even begun presenting more long-term project ideas to me.
I have also made some Azeri friends who I hang out with outside of work (we go to teahouses and play soccer).

In Brief:
-       I went to my first wedding (Toy in Azeri)! It was an Avar wedding. Avar is an ethnic group from Dagestan. My father is Avar and Avars are renowned for their weddings and their dancing. Not only was I required to dance every 5 minutes in front of the crowd of probably 300-400 people, I also had to give a brief speech, giving my blessing to the bride and groom, whom I did not know! The men I sat with also tried to hook me up with nearly every female at the wedding. The more vodka we drank, the more convinced they were that “this” girl was the girl for me! Funny how that works.
-       The Ministry of Youth and Sport hosted a trivia competition. 150 students from all of the schools in Balakan attended it. The minister wanted me to become acquainted with the region’s top students, so I mainly just served as an observer. However, I did give a speech, which was riddled with giggles from the crowd. I was also told “I love you” more than a few times as girls left the auditorium at the end of the competition. All in all, it was wonderful to see the passion that these kids have. They were so competitive, yet absolutely respectful of one another. The same cannot be said for all of the teachers! Although the event was not perfectly organized (I must admit that), some of the teachers were quite hot headed and a few even stormed out of the event with their students in tow, refusing to continue.
-       For my birthday, on the 8th I met a number of volunteers in Mingechevir, a city about 3 hours south. My friend Erika shares the same birthday as me, and my other friend Dan’s birthday is the day before. About 10 of us crammed into an apartment and had a dance party following a night at the hookah bar. The next day I returned to my host family, where I was greeted with a warm shower, Plov (a meal usually reserved for special occasions), a bottle of champagne, and gifts from my host brother and cousin. It was truly a night to remember!
-       That same night I had a conversation with my host parents about what my birth mother does for a living. They were incredibly confused when I explained that she works for a company that helps to keep seniors independent. They were perplexed, asking where these seniors’ children were. “Why are they living alone? Why do they need your help? Where are their children? Why are their children not taking care of them [as is customary in this country]?” They were incredibly receptive as we discussed the differences in culture. I explained that in America, many seniors prefer to maintain their independence. I also explained how many parents encourage their children to leave, and that children are not necessarily expected to take care of their parents when they get older. I gave the example of my own life, and described how horrified my parents were when I presented the idea of living in their basement for the rest of my life!
Lastly, the other night I visited Trey’s family out in the village. Following an amazing meal, we went to a teahouse to meet some friends. To make a long story short, a number of bigger guys challenged me to an arm wrestling competition. Everyone put their money, on the other guys, while Trey, being the good friend that he is, bet on me. Trey’s loyalty was rewarded with a few manat profit and I gained a tremendous amount of respect!
The trail up the mountain (it begins 10 minutes from my house)
Solar eclipse we saw during our hike
With Abgul and Nazikat (sitting) at the wedding
Doing a little Avar dance!