Friday, March 25, 2011

The Long Awaited Arrival of Spring...And This Post

It has been quite some time since I last wrote a post. Life has been extremely busy and exciting to say the least. March is the month of Novruz, but this week is the official holiday week, so I have spent little to no time at home writing.
Guesting is the foundation of any PCVs experience, but for a volunteer in Azerbaijan, March is the high season. Novruz is the national Muslim holiday that celebrates the New Year and the coming of Spring. The word ‘Novruz’ comes from the Farsi for 'new day', and is a celebration of the spring Equinox. The first day of spring on the calendar is determined by the annual circling of the Sun. According to the first inscription, the holiday of Novruz was established in 505 B.C. Although it is widely celebrated in Muslim countries, it cannot be strictly considered a religious holiday. Prohibited, but celebrated discreetly during Soviet years, Novruz is now one of the most anticipated holidays in Azerbaijan. The Soviet government prohibited the celebrations and persecuted people for following the age-old traditions of Novruz.

As a volunteer, we have been hearing about Novruz and its accompanying festivities since we first arrived. On each of the 4 preceding Tuesdays, Azeris celebrate one of the four elements: wind, water, fire, and earth (very Captain Planet-esque right!).  You can read about it more on the Wikipedia page (hyperlink), but all sorts of traditions are followed. Houses are spotlessly cleaned, trees are planted, plates of wheat grass (Samani) wrapped in red ribbon become everyone’s center-piece, pastries like (Shakabura and Pakhlava) become the staple at EVERY meal, eggs are ornately painted, and small bonfires are made to jump over every Tuesday night – regardless of age or gender, people jump seven times over one bonfire, or once over seven bonfires and say, “Give me your redness and take my yellowness.” This can also be translated as, “Take my hardships, give me your lightness.” Thus, hardships and troubles from the past year are “dropped” into the flames of the bonfire.

Apparently, Avars (the majority ethnic group here) do not celebrate the holiday with as much zest as other ethnic Azeris. This was quite a disappointment for me to hear. The first few Tuesdays occurred with little celebration and I became worried that Novruz would pass me by. Come March 17, however, all hell broke loose (probably not the best choice of words) and I have not had a moment to rest since!

On Friday the 17th, (fittingly the most beautiful day we have had yet) Stephanie and I nonchalantly made our way to Heydary Park, where we had heard there as a large Novruz celebration. Many people had invited us to join them there, but the details of the event remained unclear. As we entered the park, we stopped dead in our tracks, mouths gaping wide open in absolute awe. Hundreds of people were seated at tables lavishly covered with beautiful flowers, colorful fruits, juices, and cakes. Old women were spinning yarn and making traditional Azeri foods like balgabaq qutab (pumpkin quesadilla), men were grilling kebabs and toasting with vodka that never seemed to empty, and children danced to the beautiful sounds of the many musical talents that frequented the stage.
I hope the pictures below help explain what an exceptional event this really was. So much happened that an explanation in mere words could not possibly do the day justice.
We were given seats at one of the head tables, but there was not much time to actually sit. We had to do our rounds, going from table to table wishing everyone a happy holiday, taking pictures, trying people’s dishes, and taking shots of vodka whenever asked (Trey and I only). My good friend Elvin stayed with us most of the day, explaining the various dishes and performances and their significance. The spread, the decorations, the performances; it was like nothing I had ever seen before. It almost seemed profligate, but sitting there, seeing everyone smiling, socializing, and working together to celebrate this wonderful holiday, I realize just how important it was to their culture, and I became overwhelmed with feelings of pride and elation for my site and the people that I am serving. 
Trey, Stephanie, and I spent the rest of the day enjoying the beautiful weather in the Park with Elvin and his wife Elnura, reflecting on what a remarkable and wonderfully unexpected day it had been.

Since then, my sitemates and I have struggled to accept every invitation to guest. The celebrations, along with preparing to move into my own apartment (more on that to come soon), have made life almost impossibly eventful, but also very exhilarating!

Here are the highlights:

One day, we went fishing with Elvin at a river near Georgia. Spring run-off from the mountains made the water very fast and murky, so catching anything was out of the question. That didn’t prevent us from rolling up our pant legs and enjoying the sun.

We also went guesting at the house of two of our students. Ayla and Pirdas, sisters, were incredibly hospitable. Their mother cooked us a wonderful spread, and then proceeded to leave the room. When we asked why she was not staying, she said that it was because we were her daughters guests – very cute. We ate, joked, and had a dance party in their room. Before that night, their mother had recently forbade them from coming to any clubs that were not specifically dedicated to their schooling or studying English. Upon getting to know us, she gave them permission to come to any club they wanted, as long as it did not conflict with their lessons! It was so uplifting to see Ayla give me a discreet thumbs up as her mother granted them permission. They will both make excellent softball players!
When it got dark, we went “hat throwing”. Another Novruz tradition, it is very similar to trick-or-treating. You sneak up on a house, throw your hat at the door, and then scream “Papaq Doldurun” (fill the hat) before running away. You return a few minutes later hoping that the family has filled your hat with candy and nuts.
Of course, as Americans throwing hats, no one was satisfied just giving us candy, and we were forced to enter people’s homes for 2nd and 3rd dinners.

That’s all for now. I am going to spend the rest of the vacation week cleaning and moving into my new apartment. The first day of cleaning was a success (thanks in large part to the help of Trey and Stephanie), but it was not without its difficulties, including a concealed corner of mold, hydrochloric acid, and more dead spiders than in “Arachnophobia”. Wish me luck.

Green Beer for St. Patty's Day
Horse men escorting the Princess of Spring
The Novruz Festival in Heydar Park
The Princess of Spring
Azeri Dancing at the Festival
Women making Qutab and Spinning Wool
My Friend Elvin and I
Me, Elvin's Mother, Elvin, Elnura (Elvin's Wife), Stephanie, Trey
The girls playing softball at sports club at the Olympic center
Trey and Elvin fishing
Probably why they didn't catch anything
The spread that was put out just because we knocked on their door!
Not too shabby!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Celebrating 50 at 23!

In a 2am impromptu presidential campaign address in 1960 to 5,000 students at the University of Michigan, then-Senator John F. Kennedy challenged students to contribute two years of their lives to helping people in countries of the developing world. On March 1, 1961, President Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924, establishing the Peace Corps on a temporary pilot basis. Exactly 50 years later, on March 1, 2011, the Peace Corps is celebrating its 50th anniversary and I am serving my 6th month in the post-Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. Neither President Kennedy nor I could have ever imagined this! I am forever grateful to President Kennedy for his forward thinking, as I am sure many people around the world are as well. Over 200,000 current and former PCVs have served in 139 countries.

On September 22, 1961, after the first group of volunteers was sent to Ghana, Congress approved legislation for the Peace Corps, giving it the mandate to “promote world peace and friendship” through a mission statement that continues today. It is this mission statement that I wish to focus on. Fittingly, the mandate says nothing of technical training or teaching English; it simply says ‘promote world peace and friendship’. This mandate should serve as an important reminder to all readers, as well as myself, that above all else, the goal of the Peace Corps is to create lasting relationships of respect and understanding between Americans and their local counterparts. This is best exemplified by a story written by Jessica, a fellow volunteer and friend here in Azerbaijan.

Jessica’s father was born in a poor, rural village in the Dominican Republic. There was a volunteer in his small village when he was growing up. Jessica’s father remembers the volunteer, a man named Hall from Nebraska. Apparently, Hall started a Boy Scout troop in the town and created a cinema. Jessica’s father also remembers a married couple that formed a group for housewives and two other volunteers who taught arts and crafts. He remembers the volunteers being a very positive influence on the community, and the youth in particular -- showing them so many things and giving them so many ideas they did not know before.

With regards to her father’s memories, Jessica said it best, and despite the fact that she will give me a hard time for this, there is no way I can say it better.
Peace Corps isn't just about the transfer of technical skills from Volunteers to members of their communities -- it's about forming connections with people, creating memories, however small, that continue to enrich and inform our lives as citizens of the world.
Thank you Jessica!

On March 1, President Obama asserted,
With each village that now has access to clean water, each young woman who has received an education, and each family empowered to prevent disease because of the service of a Peace Corps Volunteer, President Kennedy's noble vision lives on.
I would just like to add to President Obama’s always eloquent words, as it clear from Jessica’s father’s story:
For every new friend I make and every cup of tea I sip, for every dinner invitation I receive, every question about my family in America I am asked, and every high-five I give, President Kennedy’s and the late Sargent Shriver’s noble vision lives on.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Teenage Years: Revisited

As of next Thursday, I will have been at site for 3 months. At the 4-month mark, Peace Corps gives us permission to move out and find our own, independent lodging. They provide us with just enough money to rent a quaint house or apartment. I have begun looking for a place. Although I thoroughly enjoy my host family, cherish the time we spend together, and am grateful for their love and hospitality, I would like, nay need, more independence. The other night, while discussing an issue I have been having with some troublemakers at Nizami School who are intent on harassing my students and I during our dancing club, my family firmly reminded me, “We are your family. I am your mother, and he is your father. Tell us of any problems you are having and we will take care of it.” 99% of this is sincere. The other 0.01% is the general Azeri attitude that we are useless and whatever we are doing, they can do better. Honestly though, while usually light on affection, I get the sense that the Dibirovs truly care about me. They understand what I am doing here, and why am I doing it, and they completely support me. For this, I am eternally thankful. They also support me moving out. They understand my need for independence. After so many nights of conversations regarding our cultural differences, they, unlike most people in Balaken, understand that, for a young American adult, living with family is, in fact, the strange choice. They now recognize that solitude and independence is almost always preferred. People here do not understand the concept of living alone and being independent. For a woman, it looks bad and would never be allowed (even though both Stephanie and Bailey live alone). And for a man, well, men are useless and need someone to cook and clean for them!
At least my family understands. It’s cute; when people come over now to offer their home or suggest I look at a particular house that is empty, my family is quick to correct their Azeri brethren. My father has even conveyed his frustration to me with people not understanding my request to live ALONE, in MY OWN house…not my own room in a family’s house, not my own bed in a room I will share with granny…A-L-O-N-E (or tep tek in Azeri)!
It is nothing against my family or Azeris in general, but if this place will be my home until December 2012, I need my independence in order to stay sane! My family has already warned me of how insulted they will be if I do not come over every week to eat dinner and play n∂rd with my host father!
It’s seemed like such an easy decision at first, moving out and living alone. On the contrary, it was very difficult to rationalize to myself why I wanted to move out. I am living in a foreign country and my language skills are still severely lacking. On top of that, I have a family that cleans up after me, washes my clothes, and feeds me (none of this is really by choice, and I promise I try and help). Why then, in such a foreign place, would I choose to leave the only thing that has begun to make sense, the only thing has begun to feel comfortable?
To best explain this need, I’d like to revisit the teenage years, a tumultuous time in any young persons life. Everyone, regardless of age, can surely relate to this.

Our time in PST is like being a freshman or sophomore in high school and not yet having your license. Unsupervised social gatherings have begun, and girls no longer have cooties, but we still need to have our moms drop us off in the big red van (preferably a block or two down the street so that they do not embarrass us). In PST, we are completely lost, We feel independent and grown up because we are in this new place so far from home, but in reality, we can’t so much as go to the bathroom without help. Seriously, it took me the longest time to figure out how to ask where the bathroom was…or how to flush some of these toilets!
As our language improves and PST nears its end, we grow into high schoolers with a license, and maybe even a car. We feel a slight degree of independence. We can go to Baku, the capital, on 2 occasions, we go on a trip for site visit, and we meet each other at our various training sights on the weekends, but when it all comes down to it, we still have to ask permission to do anything. Someone must know where we are at all times, and no matter what, we have to be home before dark!
The move to college, much like swearing-in and becoming a volunteer, seems like the biggest transition of all. It’s not. In reality, it’s just another small step. As college students, we feel like we have all the independence in the world, but when we come home for school breaks, that new world is shattered into a million pieces and we are quickly put in our place. We have to share the car with our younger siblings and still must ask permission to go out. “As long as you are living under this roof, you will play by my rules!” Sound familiar? The same goes for new volunteers. Sure, we can travel whenever we want (except for out of the country for the first 3 months), and there are no special restrictions on us, but at the end of the day, we still have a family waiting for us, wondering where we were and what we were doing.
For me, it is only once I move out and get my own house that I will feel like a real adult again, simply living and working in a different country. Currently, I still feel so juvenile, so helpless and needy. My family is wonderful and they are in no way overbearing or nosey (quite the opposite, in fact). However, at this point in my life, in order to fully appreciate where I am and accept that this will be the place I call home for the next 1-½ years, I need to feel constructive and self-sufficient.
This doesn’t mean I won’t be over at the Dibirov’s once a week for some dolma and n∂rd!

The wax sheets for bee hives that my host dad has made from his bee farm
Russian candy bar named Jake! (D*ek)
The birthday cake Bailey (with very little help from me) made for Stephanie's 24th!
A lot of people showed up to Stephanie's surprise party!
PCVs post-party
Gold's Gym: Azeri style! My state-of-the-art gym includes a jump rope, stretching strap, resistance band, and yoga mat (bath mat material bought in the Bazaar for 5 manat). We are just a little tight on floor space!