About the Blog

I recently accepted a position from Teach and Learn with Georgia, a Georgian Ministry of Education program designed to bring native speakers of English into classrooms around the country. I will be moving to Georgia in August of 2014 to begin my assignment.

Before this latest adventure, I studied at Bogazici University in Istanbul Turkey and at Azerbaijan University of Languages. I speak English German Spanish, Turkish Azerbaijani and Uzbek and am currently trying my hand at Georgian.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The View from the fortress in Sheki

Lahic as the sun sets

A street in Lahic

Well Friends, all good things must come to an end including a CLS summer in Azerbaijan and my travel blog about it. Seeing as I have now been back in the States for 2 weeks, I feel as though I should probably wrap this up since I must now return to school work and what is generally referred to as "real life". Though goodness knows Holland MI seems unreal enough. I went into a butcher shop the other day and was so disconcerted by the fact that it smelled good. I couldn't quite figure it out. Anyway, I thought a good way to end this would be a couple of choice stories from my trip to Sheki, Lahic and Basqal. I had considered doing a sort of Top 10 list of do's and don'ts for Azerbaijan but then I remembered that I still have no idea what the do's are so it would be best not to give advice to budding travelers. I will let you figure it out for yourselves because Azerbaijan is one of those places that cannot easily be fit into a box of "pretty/historical/adventure/eco-friendly/ridiculous-type tourism". It defies definition and boxes. It kicks off the fetters of understanding and categorization. Perhaps they got sick of the Soviet attempt at order. I find it more likely however that all the successive waves of invasion, domination, and assimilation into the culture now called Azerbaijani left the nation too distinct, unique and quirky to be contained in a single glib paragraph in a travel journal. You could fill volumes and still not quite explain the nuances of the nation. Luckily I will spare you the volumes and just get straight to work.


As with all good Azerbaijani road trips, we (the students, teachers and administrators of CLS Baku 2012) got off to a late start from the random park where we were holding class one last time. The bus we took had enough seats, so long as you used the fold down ones which turned the center aisle into not an aisle. Then we put our stuff in the rest of the pretend aisle. I do not think that fire and safety regulations hold much sway. Then the Azerbaijani pop got put on and the singing/dancing/finger snapping began. No quiet roadtrip for us. We were going to do this the right way. And so the Americans put in their ipods, turned the volume up and tried to pretend that we were on an American roadtrip where everyone is anti-social and sleeps unless they are driving. A couple of hours in and we reached the region of Samaxi where the hills on either side of the road were conscientiously decked out with Heydar Aliyev quotes about the region. I think it adds a nice flair to any road/park/underpass/billboard/mural/public space. Then we stopped for chay, because that is what you do. We went into the garden of the chayxana rather than staying in the front, (seemingly) male-only section. They seemed to have a good number of healthy looking dogs milling about and we drank our chay, ate the proffered cold pizza and mused about the derelict and ever so slightly creepy looking building just beyond the long table we were sitting at. We chatted explored and stretched our legs before once again boarding the bus to continue the adventure. Once in Sheki (6 hours after setting off) we had a short class and some adventure time in our hotel which was a renovated medieval karavansaray. Its many nooks and crannies made for fantastic views and the manicured garden in the center provided a lush and somewhat idyllic backdrop to the whole evening. Luckily the water heater was such that I didn’t get a hot shower, because too much perfection can and will spoil a place. It’s like how every piece of art, whether it be a painting, carpet or quilt should have an imperfection in it, to make the whole all the more beautiful. I feel the same way about places where I live and stay. It is the difficulties and frustrations that highlight the truly good, lovely and joyful parts of an adventure.


The next day in Sheki we spent hectically running from one place to another, going to the Sheki Xan Sarayi (The Khan’s Palace) the history museum, which housed some of the best Soviet kitsch I am ever likely to see, the ethnographic museum, an artist’s workshop where they still make shebeke by hand. Shebeke are a type of Azerbaijani stained glass windows where between the pieces of colored glass pieces of wood are used rather than lead. It is exceptionally intricate hand work, especially since no nails are used in the windows. I would have the patience to do it for about 30 seconds. I admittedly lost my patience for a short while after our visit to the History Museum. In Azerbaijan it seems as though it is impossible to see a museum without a guided tour. Since we were with the program this meant that the tours were all in Azerbaijani. I do not mind that they were in Azerbaijani. However, I am not a good tour group member. I wander off. I like to go at my own pace and have the tendency to spend inordinate amounts of time in museums, especially history museums. Being raised by two historians has this effect on a child. Show me something from the bronze age and I start to salivate. So I was done with the whole guided tour thing and I was also getting pretty dehydrated from the whole adventure. And then we made it to the 18th century room and the tour kind kindly explained to us in Azerbaijani how to use a flintlock musket by saying that they were very slow and difficult to use. I was almost ready to break the glass in the case, take one of the muskets off of their rack, and show her how to use the thing for real. I kept the urge in check seeing as I thought this might be frowned upon but something just snapped because I was so sick of people assuming I was ignorant and not that bright due to my speaking ability in Azerbaijani. Also, I missed my musket at home. Sometimes a girl just needs her gun.


We also visited an abandoned fortress on the outskirts of Sheki that day. We wandered through an Istiharet Merkezi (relaxation center or type of resort common in Azerbaijan where people hang out, sleep eat and drink chay on holidays) and then wandered down this long road, got to another, less ritzy Istirahet Merkezi from which a young man offered to show us to the fortress because we were obviously lost. He took us up the trail which wandered through a restaurant where we picked up a small dog we called Rufushka that accompanied us for the rest of the hike before getting to the real trail which consisted of scrabbling up a hillside devoid of vegetation and keeping from falling off by clinging to tree roots. I do not know who could have possibly wanted that hillside quite so badly but they would have earned it by the time they reached the top. The view was spectacular though. The whole structure was grandly crumbling on its mountainside. The deep walls had now become steps for the adventurous to climb up and look over the entire valley that encased the town and look out over the mountains and deserts beyond. It was a place meant for contemplation, where you could sit in silent companionship with your fellow students, soldiers or pilgrims and contemplate whatever it is that comes to your mind in those quiet moments between the frenetic thinking and doing that accompanies any era. For as much of a pain as it was to get to, I was glad that we had gone. It reminded me that our group had reached that level of intimacy that words weren’t necessary when we were together. Sitting together was enough.


Then we get to the bulk of our story. Because the next day we went to Lahic, my own personal paradise of Azerbaijan. We took the road from Sheki to Baku but after 3 or 4 hours we turned off onto a dirt track that was at its widest perhaps a lane and a half. It clung to the side of mountains precariously but also without fear. Local mashrutkas (buses, though to call some of these vehicles buses is to be extremely generous) and trucks where the open back was filled with men and women riding to the next destination, wherever that may be, lumbered along, blithely ignoring the enormous drop-off that awaited them within 2 feet of their wheels. At one point one of the American students asked what the Azerbaijani word for “guardrail” was. When the question “what is that?” echoed back he decided that it didn’t exist. Always a comforting thought. I was more afraid that the engine of our bus would overheat (it seemed exceptionally close at times to doing just that) and that we would have to get out and push it. We were spared any type of catastrophe though and after a solid hour of driving along more and more remote but spectacularly beautiful terrain we pulled into Lahic and stepped into a fairy tale. To get to our hotel we had to cross a small stream and trek up a cobblestoned hill. However since this is Azerbaijan and everyone is the most agreeable person that you have ever met some of the young men waiting with pack horses for moving supplies in this region without true roads obliged another student and I by taking us up the hill on their horse which sported neither saddle nor stirrups. We arrived in style but not without almost falling off into the stream. We spent the afternoon wandering the streets of this unapologetically photogenic and touristic town.  We wandered past a blue wooden mosque at the top of a hill and went beyond to a pasture outside of town and watched the sun dip lower in the sky and horses grazed and men a short walk away dug a fresh grave for a resident. We sat in the grass and stared out over the town, its sluggish river and the majestic Caucasus Mountains towering over us not to cause fear but more in a motherly protective manner, reassuring us that they were still there, looking after us and keeping us within their fold. In Lahic the children did not find me terrifying and responded to our “Salams” with joy. Most Lahic residents speak both Azerbaijani and Tat, a language related to Persian and so our poor Azerbaijani and fairness seemed not to spark any special interest. We purchased some Georgian pear flavored pop and wandered down to the river to watch as people rounded up their cows for the end of the day and brought them back up to their family compounds. We waved at all the vehicles that passed us, and one man pulled his ancient jeep up and opened his door to chat. He asked about who we were and what we were doing in Azerbaijan. We sat on a retaining wall and he nestled comfortably in his car. He moved only to get off the road so that a mashrutka could pass him on the one lane gravel road. I listened for a time and then turned my attention to the man’s face. During our conversation the topic of age had come up and I had learned that he was 26 and had lived in Lahic for all of his life. But as I studied him closely I noticed the deep lines that crossed and recrossed his deep mahogany-colored skin. His skin was loose and in places shrunken, his teeth could have used the work of a good dentist and orthodontist and there was certain age old weariness in his eyes that bespoke of sorrow, profound exhaustion but also a truly full life. He was in his own way as beautiful as the landscape where he had lived in his own life. He was not conventionally pretty, in fact those who did not look closely might have said he was not attractive at all. And he had his own manner of problems, obvious and unspoken but carved into the contours of his body and face. His life had not been an easy one: that was evident. Yet he invited us to come and spend a night in his home with his family, to get to know them better and to share his bread. We were half a dozen foreigners sitting on a cement wall in a river bottom, communicating in broken Azerbaijani with a man about our own age but who seemed decades older. He would have taken us with him to, had we agreed and wanted to go along with him. We thought about it too, spending time with Azerbaijanis is probably one of the most enjoyable experiences of my entire life. They want so badly for you to be happy. But you can only take so much from a country and a people. I took so much this summer, drinking deeply from the culture, hospitality and love of the people of this land. Sometimes you must realize that your appetite has been sated and stop despite the fact that it just tastes so good. And sometimes you must stop and leave something for your host. Or perhaps it is just that you want to leave something to come back to for the next time, whenever that time may come along.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Well friends, these last few weeks in Azerbaijan have been quite a whirlwind—I’ve been out of town traveling on the weekends and trying to cram in the last few shreds of knowledge vocab and grammar as well as running around like a chicken with its head cut off doing cultural activities and seeing Baku. I will give you the highlights as I see them and let you decide for yourself.

Qax is a beautiful town nestled in the Greater Caucasus mountain range of Azerbaijan near the border with Dagestan Russia and with a significant Georgian minority. Two weekends I went with friends Rhianna and Ryan to check it out for myself. We took the night train again which is always in and of itself an adventure. This one included everyone trying to find food etc for the trip and almost missing the train (hey we had 3 minutes or so to spare when we boarded) and then spending the evening eating, drinking talking and taking in Azerbaijan and its countryside through the dirty window held open by half empty water bottles in either corner.  We discussed what Azerbaijan had been for us so far and what we were going to do post-AZ summer. We saw the outskirts (slums) of Baku on the way out, with homes and neighborhoods that were single story concrete with corrugated metal for roofs while huge blocks of high-rises were being built nearby. Unless those high-rises are seriously subsidized no one in those neighborhoods will ever live in one. Fires burnt in the lanes and courtyards and you could catch glimpses of faces from the people who inhabit this section of Baku. While I may joke about where I live I have seen a very very privileged part of Azerbaijan while I have been here. My host mother is University educated and her daughter will be too. The entire family speaks Russian and Azeri and Nigar my host sister speaks English. Their home has running water all the time, electricity, gas air conditioning and internet. They own a computer. I live less than an hour by public transportation from the Bulvar and Tardova, the center of this city. I live exceptionally well as compared to many in this country. I have seen a very specific slice of Azerbaijan while living in Baku. And I have gotten lucky.

Homes faded from view to be replaced by oil rigs and gas flares and eventually my eyes decided that they were done. I climbed into the top bunk and was lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking motion of the train that I was on. I got cold during the night as we climbed higher into the mountains and due to the open window. It felt really good to be cold. It hit a hundred in Baku today so anytime when I shiver has become the most pleasant feeling in the entire world. Wearing a jacket is like Christmas. The problem with the heat is that it leaves you with a profound disinterest in doing anything. Like say, going to class, learning Azerbaijani, doing homework or visiting museums. It has become a problem. I have started napping in the afternoons to try and get rid of the hottest part of the day but this requires a half hour commute home and no matter what I do half of this is an uphill walk. Let us reiterate. Hundred plus degrees. Carrying heavy school bag. Uphill. Let us say that I glisten when I get home. A lot. I no longer wonder what the smell is because me is usually a good bet. As a group we have named it the CLS stench. My idea of what clothing is clean and or wearable again based upon the smell test has changed dramatically over the summer. For those of you who will have to deal with me after my arrival I apologize. I will probably wear clothing that should have been washed 3 times already. And I will think it is fine.

We got to Qax after an 11 hour train journey and discovered that the train station in Qax is a half hour taxi ride from the town of Qax. Hooray! We ended up having an exceptionally unpleasant taxi ride with a driver who almost took off before I was in the cab, only my loud and exceptionally annoyed “Oy!” stopped him from taking my leg off via a taxi-ectomy. He also insisted that there was no need for seat belts since he was such a great driver. It is still fairly common for drivers to take it as a personal affront to their abilities for riders to wear a seat belt. In my personal opinion he was a bad driver, going far too fast careering around blind corners, passing everything on the road, barely missing several herds of village cows, flying around mountains in a country where there is apparently no word for guard rail (we asked later on, nope, if the concept doesn’t exist why should the word).  He also refused to take us to the hotel that we wanted to go to, saying that it was bad. We insisted that he stop and take us back (all of this is in Azerbaijani with me leading the charge as the best speaker and the driver looking to Ryan because he is the male in the car). He turned around and took us to a different hotel, apparently assuming that since we were foreign we were total idiots and wouldn’t notice the difference. Oh we did and he then had two very angry and liberated American women jumping down his throat telling him to take us to the correct hotel which he then pretended to not know the location of. We were forced to give him directions and then he insisted that we pay him more since he had given us a tour of Qax. We got out of the car barely managing to not kill him though I think we were all ready to. On the plus side I now know how to yell and have a pretty extensive argument in Azerbaijan. I even got real world experience and have a standard dialogue to work from.

After this excellent intro to Qax we went with Peace Corps Volunteer James on a stunning hike up a shepherd’s trail to the pasture on the top of the tallest mountain in the vicinity. This was a 3 or 4 hour hike in total, intensive and tiring. We followed the trail (kind of) by the red markings that ended where James had stopped the day before and then looked for traces of the shepherds’ cows as evidence of the trail. The air got thinner, the forest more primeval, our stomachs hungrier and water bottles emptier. We were all sweaty, tired and ready for an actual view (since trees obscured it most of the way up) and then all of a sudden we were at the top of the mountain. The trees opened up in an almost fairy tale like manner so that we were looking out at open skies and land once more. We were in a meadow covered in a thousand wild flowers of varying shades looking out over the valley below us with a river winding through and more mountains beyond it.  A single tree stood on a ledge ahead of us and we sat and got a spectacular view of the same valley further up, looking at a small village stretching itself out comfortably along the banks of a gently winding river. The bugs were thinner, the air cleaner than anything I have ever experienced in Azerbaijan and I wanted to dance with pleasure at being on a mountaintop in the Caucasus with friends and far far away from the mundane and everyday world that I normally inhabit. We continued following the thin and winding trail along the steep meadow and as we stepped around the next corner a shepherd in army boots and a t-shirt approached us carrying a beverage bottle that has been in use since the invention of plastic filled with sweet spring water. He handed it to us and we drank deeply. He then motioned to take the pack from Ryan’s back that contained our food and other supplies. He politely declined and the shepherd took off again, giving us the chance to slowly approach the shepherd’s hut which consisted of three walls of a fascinating combination of twigs and blue tarpaulin.
 They were Georgian shepherds and they had other Georgian friends visiting from Tblisi with the result that a pack of Georgians who spoke as good of Azerbaijani as we did were waiting for us to arrive. They chatted with us, a young woman in the group spoke amazing English and asked about who we were and how we had gotten there. Then we were invited in for chay, another bottle was decapitated so that it might become two glasses for the Georgian wine they had with them. The wine is traditionally drunk in one swig, with the arms of the drinkers intertwined. Ryan lost his chugging contest and had to kiss a scruffy shepherd on the cheek much to our amusement. Then the pork kebab came out. It was fascinating to hang out with Georgians rather than Azerbaijanis and get a feel for their interpersonal relations. They were loud and brash (and I think drunk) but the women had no fear and no submission towards the men. They drank openly and the men seemed at ease with us American women. They climbed the mountain which told me that they were not afraid of hard labor and intense exercise. And one shepherd had the nicest teeth I have seen in a long time. Not a gold one in sight. To celebrate our arrival the shepherd fired their shotgun, something that I suspect would belong in a museum in the states, a double barreled percussion cap affair to complement the machetes that they each wore in their belt. After the lengthy affair that refusing any type of hospitality or food is in this country a shepherd took us the last couple hundred meters to the peak of the mountain, through his herds of cows and charging up the steep hills like it was the easiest thing in the world. As he was smoking a cigarette. I want to see the lungs of the shepherds in this country. It would make for the most fascinating combination of destruction due to personal behavior and incredible strength due to lifestyle. He looked down quizzically as we huffed and puffed and finally arrived breathless only to have our breath stolen yet again by the view. We had 360 degrees of beauty before us.
 On every side the land dropped down beneath our feet to reveal untouched mountains (purported to be the Russian border) a few snowcapped peaks, the town of Qax and the vast low valley that covers the center of Azerbaijan. We stopped to take photos and think and try to catch our breath. The shepherd made a call on his cell phone which still worked despite our removal from civilization. And yet that is not true because we were at the height of civilization, where we were greeted like long lost kin and showered with generosity and kindness despite the fact that our conversations were stilted and punctuated by exaggerated hand gestures meant to convey human emotion. It was with great sadness that I took my leave of that mountaintop for I could have sat and watched the world go by for the rest of my life from that place. But I suppose that it is better this way for it will never become ordinary to me. That place with always be preserved in my mind as extraordinary, indescribable and just a little bit magical. If Azerbaijan is a world apart from America then that mountain was a world apart from Azerbaijan. I felt both incredibly at home with those shepherds and incredibly foreign in my shorts and t-shirt with my odd accent and penchant for hiking and my inability to keep pace with the young men who inhabit those hills. I can see what it is about this place that had drawn explorers and adventurers since the beginning of time and how places could become so isolated that the languages here are unrelated to those anywhere else on the planet. I can see how each small village could preserve its own dialect and specific way of life and how despite its size Azerbaijan has the dazzling array of accents in its native tongue. After the heat and stench and noise of Baku Qax and that mountain, which is so normal and every day to the people there that it seems to lack a name, made me fall back in love with Azerbaijan. I admit that my energy has been flagging; I have been tiring of class and routine and being unable to communicate. I have tired of the misogyny and the constant staring and questioning and feeling as though I must represent not just America but women as well. Qax tired me physically to the point that I could hardly stand upright but it refilled my spirit and brought me back to a place where I needed to be. I needed to be in love with this country and the people here. I needed to feel at peace and at ease with my Creator and His creation. And I needed to leave this country happy with it, not angry resentful spiteful and ready to see its back. I want to leave with the magic of this place in my heart. It is there now.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Well guys, I wish I had a more creative excuse for my absence than, "I've been really busy" but, well, I've been really busy. Life here in Azerbaijan continues to move at the speed of light and if you want to keep up than you had better hold on for dear life. Last week was a roller coaster if I have ever been on one.

Classes continue ever forward, day in and day out. At this point I'm just finding them monotonous and I know that I'm not taking in nearly as much as at the beginning. My brain just seems to be shouting "enough" as I keep trying to shove more vocabulary and grammar at it. I wish that it would keep up but I hate to abuse it. It has been very good to me up to this point in my life so I prefer to keep it happy. I do not know if I will look back and think, I should have worked harder at learning Azerbaijani but at this point I feel as though I am doing all that I can. Physical, mental and emotional exhaustion are not things to be played with. I am fortunate enough to already know pretty well at this point in my life the limits of my own abilities. When I reach them I need to take a break, breathe and decide how to proceed. Yes, this means I am not always throwing myself into language study and reading for 6 hours a day. However, it also means that I will be a mostly functional human being upon my return to the States. This makes me more useful than an exceptionally talented but crazy Azerbaijani speaker. Or so I tell myself.

Enough with the inner musing, let's get down to what I've been up to in the land of fire. We learned how to make shekerbura, the national pastry, on Monday of last week. When I say we I mean the girls of the group. The men were uninvolved up until we started eating. I really wanted to become the little red hen from my feminist childhood and tell them that those who don't help with the kneading of the dough, the grinding of the cardammon, the forming of balls and rolling of the dough, the filling with walnuts and sugar, the formation into half moons with fluted edges and placing of proper national designs on top, (yeah you get the idea, super labor intensive cooking process) do not get to eat. I then decided that this was too much effort. I think what bothered me was that no one of authority seemed the least bit concerned that the men were not involved in this required cultural activity. Time and again the girls get their hands dirty cooking, dance like fools at every vaguely party type activity and that we have generally get involved and the guys sit it out. And this is fine. The expectations for men are just so different than they are for women. The men in class are far and away the favorites and then they are not expected to perform. I have found myself increasingly frustrated by the double standard that everyone here holds me too. I was chatting with my host mother and a friend of the family the other night, being told (again) that I should find an Azerbaijani husband. I replied that I would do so if I could find one who could cook and help with the housework. They laughed hysterically and then told me that this would be difficult to find. My mom surprised me by saying that if American men knew how to do that they must be the best men in the world. That comment makes me suspect that I am not the only one who finds the double standard frustrating and annoying but that Azerbaijani women seem to be unsure as to how to change the status quo. I wouldn't know how to go about such a task myself but someone needs to do it.

Wednesday it managed to hit 43 degress here in Baku (this is about 109 for the fahrenheit crowd) and so like any sane people we decided that pollution or no pollution we were going to the beach. At least we would be cooler when the extra limbs started to grow. Our merry band of Americans took first the metro (which was stifiling) and then a taxi to get to Bilgeh, one of the few public beaches near Baku. Granted it is not really supposed to be public. There is an impressive gate with guards at the front. And so everyone walks around to the side where there is a massive hole in the wall and gets to the beach that way. We took the slightly less than legal route and ended up on the beach with a pretty small bunch of humanity, purchased the rights to a table chairs and umbrella for 2 manat each and started slathering on the sun screen. We did get into the water, which was murky, salty and a little oily if I'm honest but it was also much colder than the air which was all I really wanted. The Caspian is purported to be the most polluted body of water on the planet and so we were pretty careful about things like our eyes and open wounds but no one seems to have had any ill effects and it was a fun experience to sit on the beach and watch the world go by for a little, chatting, eating our snacks and turning down the vendors selling corn on the cob and peroskies, which are mashed potatoes covered in dough and deep fried. Someone needs to export them to the American South because they would be an instant hit.

After class on Thursday we went to an ethnographic musuem, which is essentially pottery, mock homes stone carving and animals set up outside. I did not get it at all and it was also about a million degrees outside so I wasn't really feeling the whole open air thing anyway. Also the fact that it was an hour drive each way from Baku. On the way back I was able to purchase train tickets for my weekend adventure though which was quite the experience seeing as we waited in line like good Americans forgetting that this is Azerbaijan so of course no one waits in line, having multiple tellers go on break while in the middle of buying tickets and then finially getting some and having the woman selling them look like she wanted to rip out my throat with a butter knife throughout the entire process. I cannot say much for the customer service at the train station in Baku if I'm honest. I did manage to buy tickets for the correct, day, train, number of people and berth without much mishap though so I was glad that my Azerbaijani had progressed to that level. Plus train tickets are dirt cheap in this country, with a one way 11 hour train ride to Qax costing 9 manat or less then 11 dollars. Plus you get the very weird experience of riding a train in Azerbaijan which is worth 10 bucks in and of itself.

That evening I had the chance to go to one of the jazz clubs in Baku with a good friend. I got dressed up for the occasion and then took the subway there. I attracted more attention than usual and I could tell that the stares I was getting were not the "who is the foriegner" type but the "who is that woman" type. I refused to react though and got to the 28 May station (the city's main metro station) without mishap. Leaving there I got the funniest cat call I think I will ever experience in my life. A man passed by me on the street and without meeting my eye said "Gesheng gesheng-sheng" (gesheng means beautiful or pretty). I wish I could better express the strong emphasis on the second sylablle of the word and the way he slowed on the last sheng plus the up and down tone of his voice. When I got to the club I told my friend and we both laughed at the ridiculousness of life sometimes. I actually haven't gotten many cat calls here in Baku but I had to give this guy points for originality. I then spent 3 hours sitting in a comfy chair, feeling pretty in my cute heels and dress, listening to good jazz and chatting with a wonderful friend. It was calming, soothing, relaxing and everything that jazz should be. I could not have been happier when the evening wound to a close and I headed home in a taxi, not even having to give directions to the driver.

The realization that we are going home soon has started to hit me. It's such an odd thing to think of. I haven't really thought much about America because it feels so far away. I know that I am in the one in the foreign country, but sometimes seeing banal comments on facebook or reading my mother's emails makes me realize just how far away I am. I forget about things like driving a car, since I ride the crazy public transport everywhere here, or chatting with large groups of people, because the group of people who understand my mother tongue and who I know here is limited to about 15. I am going to get home and make comments about things that make no sense and reference places in a country that most Americans have never heard of. And I will want to speak a language that very few understand. I think the reentry might be more rough than I expected. In the meantime I have started compiling lists of everything that I still need to get done in this country (they are ponderous these lists). Hopefully I will accomplish all the things on my lists and if not, well, I can kind of speak the language so I can always come back.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

 Did I mention that it's hot in Baku? I think this guy has the right idea.

Bibi Heyat Mescid (mosque). Those are some of our teachers and students going toward it.

This is Baku from Dag Ustu (Top of Mountain) Park. For all its quirks it is a beautiful city.

Well friends, I’m still alive and back for more. Last Sunday after writing I went home. Now this was harder than it sounds because it was raining. Not super hard but a good steady rain. As a result the streets around my neighborhood (where it is hilly) flooded. As in there was a foot of water rushing down the road. I adjusted my pack, removed my shoes, hitched up my skirt and went home. I may have rained down some curses on whoever designed the infrastructure and drainage systems for Baku as well. It was cathartic, you can’t blame me. At home I met grandma (I think my home is a revolving door of relatives) who started every conversation with me in Russian before seeing my blank expression and asking if I spoke Russian. I told her every time that I spoke Azerbaijani and yet when we watched the new she insisted on sounding out Hilary Clinton for me. Ok, Nene, I know who that is. Got it. My host mother scolded her but I think her memory is not what it might be. I don’t really know what happens in Azerbaijan when your senses go. It seems like most people’s bodies give out for sooner than their minds so I don’t know that there is a plan.

This week we had midterms on Monday, which went surprisingly well. Our teachers were very kind about the whole thing and I actually got complimented, so I was in a bit of shock from the whole experience. It was a strange reminder that we have goals this summer. Or are supposed to. Afterwards I found my way to Azerbaijan’s Catholic Church, built with funds from the Azerbaijani government and basked in its silence for a while. It’s an incredibly modern structure, far more light than the European Cathedrals that I’m used to. Even the choice of building materials amplified the simplicity, elegance, and soft white light that filled the space. It lacked the usual ornaments but didn’t feel empty. Rather it exaggerated the sense of sanctuary created by a church sitting on a frankly ugly street corner, one that is hot, loud, dusty and under construction. The merciful quietof the sanctuary wrapped itself around me and I fell silent. As a site it felt almost womb-like, though whether this represents God’s more feminine role as both Mother and Father of humanity, the rebirth through Christ or the infancy of the RCC in Azerbaijan I cannot know. I felt remarkably calm after I left whichever it was.

 Tuesday we went bowling with our peer tutors after class, which was fascinating because the idea of women being athletic hasn’t quite made it here yet. The sport option for women is volleyball. As a result watching some of them bowl was quite amazing. We all laughed and had fun though, and our entire group went and for the first time in a while I felt really connected to the whole bunch. It can be difficult when we are in different classes and constantly working on different stuff to build group trust and harmony. Tuesday was a good day. The entire week I was rather lazy if I’m honest, enjoying time spent at home doing non-stressful activities like reading, writing emails and trying to think about my future (ie ordering books for classes at State that start in less than 6 weeks).  It can be difficult to remember that I have a life outside of Azerbaijan, Baku and learning Azerbaijani. This is what my life is and has been for weeks. It can be difficult to switch gears and realize that my “real world” is still there and I have stuff to take care of in it.  I live in a dream world where everything else is strangely suspended. The transition back home may be just a little bit rough.

We listened to the Director of the Azerbaijan University of Languages (incidentally also a Member of Parliament and Azerbaijan’s representative to the European Community) speak to us about politics in the region on Wednesday after class. I think the quote that most stuck with all of us was “When you are playing with Russia on a geopolitical stage, you are playing a game without rules”. Good times. The man is a skilled politician though, because he can talk his way around and out like no one’s business. I am not sure whether he answered our questions or not. It was very difficult to tell. His English is amazing though and he has the in on all of Azerbaijan’s relationships with surrounding countries as well as being an excellent representative of the official line so it was fascinating to listen to him talk. I asked about Turkic groups in Russia and that was what prompted the awesome quote. Essentially, Azerbaijan can’t complain about what happens in Russia. Because Russia still enjoys a great deal of control and power in many if not most of the former Soviet Union. I definitely enjoyed getting to hear about Azerbaijan from another point of view, hopefully if I eventually put the kaleidoscope of information together that I’ve heard I’ll be able to form my own picture of it. Piece by piece, it’s coming along.

And then I watched part of Invictus because it was Mandela Day around the world, including the American Center in Baku Azerbaijan. And who doesn’t love a good Hollywood movie sometimes? We’ve been reading about the arts in Azerbaijan and we got to watch an awesome animated film about Dede Gorgud (the Turkic book of tales and heroes) and the Azerbaijani version of Cyclops, who in this case is a child of a nymph? (pehriz) and a shepherd and has an insatiable appetite and must eventually be slayed in the eye due to invulnerability everywhere else on his body by the long lost son of the Oguz Turk leader who was raised by lions. Yes it was that awesome and it is on youtube. I love it when this stuff happens. These are the kind of random moments that I treasure. I had another one when on Thursday after class I went with Monica to the zoo here in Baku. We had a devil of a time finding it, but did manage to pick up some nail polish for ourselves. The pollution here in Baku might be termed, well, bad and so we needed something to help with the disgustingness that is underneath our fingernails. Hence, nail polish. We did find the zoo and go in and look at the animals. It was kind of depressing due to the really small enclosures and the fact that they were completely tame and willing to let you pet them since people feed them all the time. The facilities are such that I do not think that they will be getting a panda at the Baku zoo anytime soon. That is a nice way to say it. There is however, a nice little café at the entrance where we sat and started doing our homework. After a while I was done and was drinking my last of my pot of chay (hello, caffeine addiction, long time no see) when a voice behind me asks me if I’m foreign. I wheel around and the two men at the table behind us beckon me over for conversation.

This being Baku I go over and end up having a fantastic chat with these guys in Azerbaijani about what I’m doing here and why the US is interested in Azerbaijan. The one man was a lawyer, who like all people it seems was juggling two or three phones, but despite my lack of skill in Azeri and his nonexistent English he really wanted to get to the nuts and bolts of the issues. And so we did. I was amused by the fact that they could tell we were foreign because we a. spoke English b. were reading/studying and c. were girls who wore no makeup. Women in this country tend to paint it on so I guess that does make us a rarity. I never thought about it before he mentioned it though so the conversation taught me something new. He was deferential, endearing and exceptionally hospitable too, as are the vast majority of Azerbaijanis. When I told him we really had to go (because we did, not in a “oh please get me out of here” type of way) he proceeded to pay for out drinks in a thouroughly non-creepy manner. In America I don't usually let strangers pay for me. It is weird. And if they are men I do not typically trust this outpouring of the milk of human compassion. I am suspicious of the strings that come along with it. This is Azerbaijan though, where there are creepers but most people just want to be hospitable and help you out. This makes me very annoyed when I do meet the creepers, if for no other reason than that they are being really terrible Azerbaijanis and not being kind to their guests. I feel like yelling at them that they suck at their own culture probably would not make a difference though. Anyway, Nazim, my lawyer friend, was not a creeper and it was a pleasure to meet him, as it has been for the vast majority of Azerbaijanis I come across. The random street corner/café/bus stop type of conversations are the best way to learn the language and get to know the people in my opinion, which is probably why I end up spending inordinate amounts of time wandering the city by myself.  

This weekend has been a blessing to me in so many ways, we had class in the park on Friday and despite the incessant noise of traffic I did find it rather enjoyable to be in the open. I went out to dinner at a Turkish place with friends and we had the chance to laugh and chat and plan for the coming weekend when we are taking the train far from Baku to parts unknown. My family was gone so I got to have the apartment to myself for a short while and feel in control of my life again. I ate what I wanted and slept where I wanted and spoke English at home. I chatted with my family for hours and on Saturday we got to go to religious sites including the spectacular Bibi Heyat Mosque which looks out over the Caspian and is the closest to a Muslim shrine that I have ever been to. It was beautiful mesmerizing and I have to admit pretty quiet considering that it was the first day of Ramadan on Saturday. We also went to the Catholic and Orthodox Church, a synagogue and the Atesgah Fire Temple. Then we got to have free time and go exploring around the city. Lovely.

Today I met up with my peer tutor Gulnara and went to the pool. I was not sure what to expect and I thought that it would be exceptionally awkward but I ended up having an amazing time. I taught her the basics of how to swim and dive since she knew neither and she seemed to love the chance to learn. We chatted and got to know each other a little but I also felt like I was getting the chance to do something for her rather than just expecting her to hang out with me and amuse me for a while. I’ve never taught anyone anything resembling a useful skill and it was really wonderful to see how quickly she had improved after only an hour or so of trying it out. It makes me wonder if our teachers feel the same way watching us. It makes me understand better why it is that people choose to go into teaching. It was a great feeling to do something that not only gave her a skill but also gave her a chance to be athletic and unique in a culture that seems to force people into very distinct types. It’s hard to explain but valuing each person’s unique abilities and attributes doesn’t seem to apply to fashion or to education yet here. I think the strong Soviet influence that requires uniformity still holds far too much sway over the young. It’s good to see people working to break that mold and to be something that they aren’t expected to be. I try to break the mold every day in the States, so to see it here where it can be so much more difficult is heartening and to see the look on her face when she finished swimming the length of the pool for the first time is something I doubt I will ever forget. This is a country that brings you up short unexpectedly, a place that just when you think you have it figured out turns itself and gives you yet another facet to explore.  Its depths are something that I don’t think I will ever reach, which makes me all the more excited to try. Let’s go exploring friends!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Well friends, it’s a Sunday afternoon, I’m sitting in the Baku McDonald’s and deciding what I can say about this past week. It’s been a bit of a tough one, with lots of emotional ups and downs. Tuesday was tiring but I finally worked up the courage to look the soldiers who are always in the park on my way to school in the morning. I was a little shocked to find his gaze as unsure and frightened as my own. This particular soldier couldn’t have been more than 21 and his youth shone through in that gaze. There was also something just a little flirtatious in his glance, just a hint, but enough to make me smile and then look down. I had a dream the other day about being stopped by the police so I’m still afraid of them but the fear is waning. That look was a good reminder for me. Then while walking past the Turkish embassy I had a man greet me with “Sene Gunaydin” which is Turkish rather than Azerbaijani. I’m not sure why he assumed me to be Turkish but it again made me smile. The miniscule shared moments with the people here continue to amaze me. They can be frustrating, charming, thought provoking, overwhelming, hilarious and often encouraging. I am continually propped up by the hospitable Azerbaijanis I meet, thrilled by my basic knowledge of their language and their admiration makes up for the worst day of class.

I did have some class issues this week, mainly stemming from the frustrating and obvious preference of my teachers for the other student in intermediate Azeri. A few days I tried to show him up with amazing written passages before realizing that it was fruitless and I should instead enjoy my privileged position as the resident apparent idiot and use it to full effect. I have also considered making up a tick to perform every time they lavish praise upon him and seeing how long it takes them to notice. Or turning class into a drinking game. These options are still on the table and I will decide in the coming week which seems the most feasible. Should hilarity ensue you will be the first to know. The beginnings also signed the language pledge this week which means we cannot speak anything but Azerbaijani in class, on University grounds, with our peer tutors, on official trips and excursions and at home with our families. Naturally conversation has gotten a little lighter in depth of material covered and volume of words. Also we look forward to lunch off of university grounds a lot more.

Tuesday I had the chance to watch my mother cook which was a little terrifying but also incredibly enjoyable because her manic pace was coupled with incredible knowledge of her national cuisine and a passion for showing her hospitality through food. She also seemed exceptionally pleased that I wanted to learn. Granted I am not competent enough to do anything but I did get to slice up some tomato for dinner. I also get to pour my own tea and run my own shower. I’m maturing so rapidly.

I was trying to explain to a friend outside of the program the other night (in English) how one of the biggest stressors and reasons for my frustration in this country is feeling so helpless and childlike all the time. I cannot express myself at anything approaching that what I can in English. I struggle to sound like a 6 year old. I am never an expert in anything because I’m not a trained linguist or specially trained in the history or culture of the region. Those are the only options for being an expert. I fell as though I can never share any of my knowledge and as a result sound profoundly idiotic most of the time. At home everything is taken care of for me. On program events we are herded around in large groups and told what to do and when to do it. I crave my alone time because I decide what to do, how I get there, how long I stay and who I speak with. It’s so liberating and so rare.

Moving right along to Wednesday. I had my normal routine and we listened to a divine muğham concert after class. I suppose you could call muğham the national music but it’s much more than that to many Azeris. Muğham is an art form that was transformed by hundreds of years of Azerbaijani musicians into something entirely unique and distinct to this land, something distinguishable to the trained ear as a mark of nationality. And so we listened and drank in the sounds and the deep richness of the singer’s voice, the beautiful way the musicians played off of one another, letting inspiration take them into the realm of improvisation and the others falling back to listen. Two of the musicians were father and son and so it was wonderful to see their interaction on stage, the father leading the son and then letting him take control. The delight on the father’s face with his son’s talent and skill in a field they shaved a passion for. It was pure joy to watch.

And then I had a birthday party. We had cake and candles which almost burned off a friend’s eyebrows and the ubiquitous cay, with soda and chips to round out the rather strange meal. I was sung to and toasted in the Azeri style, with people giving me speeches about my current and future good fortune and then we spoke English. It was delicious and forbidden and I enjoyed it a great deal. At home I spoke with my family for nearly 2 hours, which was a wonderful gift and then my host family threw me a party, with various relatives (I believe a brother’s wife’s sister and her child were there among others) and they gave me presents presumably to furnish my future home but all Azeri themes. It was an unexpected outpouring of love for a stranger. And then the food came out. I was treated to a feast of Lenkeran eggplant, lobye (the long green beans common here) the eternal bread tomato and cucumber, Russian salad, which is a mix of carrot egg meat and potato minded and in a dilly mayonnaise, meat wrapped in flat lavash bread and topped with an onion salad and smoked fish. I ate more than I thought possible. And then they brought out the plov, great quantities of rice and chicken, topped with tart cherries to cut the richness. We drank a bottle of extremely sweet red wine, I was toasted yet again and I listened to the family gossip about various weddings. After a break to digest and finish my homework we had chay and, the piece de resistance, a beautiful homemade cake, complete with candles and a wish. I stayed up till I thought I would drop listening to the rolling conversation and the hiccups when my family switched from Azeri to Russian and back again. I didn’t speak much but instead absorbed the experience of it all, trying to savor every detail. I slept well that night, feeling safe in the knowledge that I was surrounded by people who cared about me.

I finished out the week with a visit to the State Carpet Museum complete with Azerbaijani tour, a performance at the State Pantomime Theater which left me half perplexed and half amused and a divine dinner at a Georgian Restaurant. Saturday I went to the museum of Modern Art with a friend and we worked on how to tell time because a picnic lunch lying in the grass in a park. This was tainted in the end by a creeper coming up and asking us our age and whether we were lesbians. He then assumed us that it was his birthday and that he had studied psychology at the University of Freiburg. He provided a profile of me then, including favorite color, nationality and age when I lost my virginity. We were on our way out when he started quoting prices at us. I am far too expensive for you man, don’t even try it. The night was saved by a boat ride with Elvin and his friend Kemal and the chance to talk through and laugh at some of our crazy experiences. Sitting on the bulvar, drinking chay, watching the spectacular party being put on to celebrate the 42nd anniversary of Heydar Aliyev’s entrance into politics and staring out over the Caspian I realized that while I may be run ragged by this program and speak terrible Azerbaijani, the most important thing for me is finding what I love about this country and region of the world. And in those moments with friends who can explain and laugh with me, and give me an insider’s view into their own country I find that love. My love of this country has nothing to do with its physical richness, its impressive growth or its mystifying and often impossible language. I love Azerbaijan for her people, in all their variety and peculiarity. They make this experience survivable. And I thank them for it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The ladies and I in Quba

The view from the roof of the valley

The Cemetary

Okey dokey friends. Now you get to hear my wonderful stories from Quba town. I'm glad you all seem to be patient. We left from the University only about a half hour late and took off. Roadtrips with our group include lots of talking, the teachers at the front doing Azerbaijani kareoke and dancing in the ailes, and sing alongs in Azeri with interesting results (I swear I'm trying but I just don't get the rhthmic structure of the music here, slyabbles seem to just come and go as desired). Reina Xanim usually leads the charge with endless enthusiam. When you're coming off of 4 hours of sleep this is somehow less appealing though if I'm honest. They have been trying desperatly trying to teach us how correctly dance and sing but we really are kind of terrible. My peer tutor, Gulnara, had to go to a wedding last weekend so she couldn't come. It was interesting to see the interactions between all the people on the bus adn think about their motives. The peer tutors were like little kids who were allowed to walk to school alone. It is very possible that for some of them this trip was the first time away from some relative or another. It blows my mind a little bit but I can also understand then why you would be so excited about it. I wonder if we seem strange them, students who abandon family and travel halfway across the world for months at a time to study a language we don't speak. Come to think of it most Americans think we're a little strange so I shouldn't expect any other judgement. The teachers also seemed to be enjoying their holiday from responsibilites and family. All the Americans were excited because we didn't have class. We stopped at a roadside market for a quick stretch and bathroom break. It was dusty and crowded, with cars vying for position and peoepl everywhere, kids selling corn, vendors with hot food, qutab and kebab and stores lining the edge with presents, water, chips and alcohol. There was also a mosque along the edge and a mountain where people go to pray.

We got to Quba after a little over two hours and pulled into the hotel at the edge of town. Quba is the name of both the region and city north of Baki. It borders Dagestan Russia to the north and so yet again I was faced with a border that I didn't really want to cross. But it is nestled in a river valley in the Greater Caucasus which makes it one of the most picturesque places I have ever seen. we walked into the central courtyard of the hotel and first marveled at the swimming pool that they had and once we tore our eyes away from the exceptionally appealing water were starstruck. The river stretched ot beneath us, the bank covered with lush fruit trees, small homes and winding paths. It looked like a fairy tale. The view from the roof was even better. We were given chay at a long table as they emptied out rooms lining the courtyard for us and offered more of the American pizza fed to us on the bus. What is it that makes people think that Americans like hot dogs and lunch meat on pizza? I swear I was fed the same recipe in Peru a few years back and it wasn't good then. I don't understand it. After chay we dropped our things off in our rooms and I marveled at the huge space given to me and one other person and enjoyed the toilet paper in the bathroom. It doesn't take much to please me. We reboarded the now oppresively hot bus to see Quba proper.

First we were taken to the hill on the other side of the river. We had an amazing view and a chance to wander through the Jewish cemetary. Across teh river from Quba is Qirmizi Gesebe or Red Settlement, which is a seperate town of Jews from the hills and now more commonly from Israel and the States. It's an ancient place with a seperate language from the surrounding countryside but the achitecture on the various synagoges is amazing. But I get ahead of myself. I took off by myself in the cemetary because really, no one needs that much together time. It was overgrown in many parts, which added to its charm, with headstones written in the mind spinning combination of Hebrew and Cyrillic Azerbaijani or Russian,  I wasn't sure which. The grass was brown due to the heat of the place and many of the stones stood at odd slants from the passage of time. The further you got back from the entrance and the nearer the edge of the slope you walked the older the graves got. Many were from the Soviet period and I was surprised that such obviously religious burials were allowed. Down in Qirmizi Qesebe proper we tried to go into a school (or synagogue, it was never actually made clear) and had an enormous discussion with the 15 or so boys sitting outside. Because what day did they take us on? Saturday also known as the Sabbath. Full points. It feels reassuring when things don't work out here, it feels so much more natural that way. We got to go eventually and the boys because our posse for the rest of the trip which was actually really fun. They ventured a few phrases in Azerbaijani with us but they seemed as confused as everyone as to why we could speak it but not Russian. Afterwards we got to go to a mosque in Quba proper.

I reserve a special place in my heart for mosques and mosque visiting. I went to quite a few in Turkey and I found that no matter the confusion and bustle outside a mosque will be clean, quiet and peaceful. This mosque was no different. It was solely a man's mosque but we snuck in and didn't get in trouble so they must have not had a problem with us. I had a short conversation with a man sitting outside and he was thrilled to hear that we were all in country learning Azerbaijani and as with everyone else because people in this country are too kind, told me my Azerbaijani was good. Inside the mosque was small and circular, with simple painted patterns on the walls in blues and green. A few men came in for namaz while we were there and I got to observe the differences in the prayer stance for Sunni and Shia muslims. Namaz is an act that fascinates me because of its repetivive almost trancelike nature. To watch someone go through the entire ritual is often to see a person go from being hot, out of sorts and rushed to something approaching a calm restfulness. You can see the way the muscles in the back and neck loosen as the ritual enters its thrid or fourth cycle of stand, bow, kneel and prostrate. To watch this act is such a beauty that you feel yourself refreshed and cleansed. While I know that it is not cooler inside the mosques that I visit, it feels like a climate change. The atmosphere is one of seclusion from the world and leaving all that is worldly at the door. Shoes may be dirty with the dust of the world but by leaving them outside people also seem to leave their outer shells and come inside as part of a greater whole. The shoes make the man, some say. By removal of the shoes is the removal of societal inequality, of profession, of cares and troubles and the entrance into a state of childlike freedom. Removal of the shoes means that you have arrived at a home in this country, where you are either enthusiastically greeted as a member of the family or a welcome guest. We were welcome quests in that mosque and the 5 minutes or so I spent inside reminded me what it is about the culture of this land that I fell in love with.

I reluctantly left and we were escorted to the hotel where we spent the remainder of the day eating, drinking cay, writing postcards and homework, wandering down to the river for conversation and quiet reflection, frolicking in the pool with "dad"--Josh, our resident director, who is 25-- and having conversations with the other guests of the hotel, who decided that I was a good muslim girl because I wore a scarf on my shoulders (my blue bra was showing through) and I refused their offer of shots of vodka. I suppose that does make me a good muslim girl. Full points me. We went to bed far too late after laughing and attempting to dance in the Azeri style while our teachers cheered us on.

The next morning we had an elaborate breakfast of hot food and cay (naturally) and chatted with each other and the teachers. I went to the roof of the hotel for a while and enjoyed the view of the river valley, which in a strange way reminded me of my father's home in Germany, with the meandering river, the green hills, the friendly villagers and the overwhelming and inexplicable feeling of being at home in a place that should be entirely foreign to me. We boarded the bus and visited various natural panoramas, ignoring our teacher's advice at every opportunity, in part to prove that girls can climb hills and run around and be athletic (and rebellious). We went to a rest center and I napped in the grass while attempting to not get hit in the head with a volleyball and we ate yet another delicious and enormous meal at a long family table. I love eating with my teachers becuase they turn into not our teachers but our mothers, telling us to eat eat, and that if we don't clean our plates our future spouses will be ugly. They tell us funny stories, encourage our attempts at Azerbaijani and laugh when we laugh together at the ridiculousness of sitting on a hillside in Azerbaijan sipping cay and telling jokes about Stalin. It's just that kind of place.

We had to leave unfortunently, but only after a visit to the most disgusting squat toilet I hope I ever encounter. I hate to ruin the story but there it is. We went to a carpet factory (actually two because we went to the wrong one first) and saw the ladies in action. They are amazing, that's all I can say and those carpets are worth every penny. Then with a Peace Corps Volunteer to lead us we played baseball with some of the guys from Quba. The bases were carpet squares, we switched off gloves every inning because we didn't have enough, had to hit to right field to avoid hitting the new windows in the school, tried not to impale ourselves on the glass shards around home plate or break a leg in the trench near first, kept no score and had the most enjoyable time playing baseball I've ever had. We laughed and cheered each other on, never turning it into a competition, between genders, countries or teams. We just played. I can't think of anything I could have enjoyed more as a end to a perfect weekend. We drove home and I finially got back to my apartment ready for a shower and some home cooking. No one was at home.

After a few seconds of intense cursing I pulled myself together and made some decisions. The door was locked. I had no key. My sister's phone wasn't working. I had no idea where they were. I made the choice of asking the next neighbor I saw if they knew what was going on. This being Azerbaijan he took me up to his apartment, introduced me to his family, his wife gave me cay and filled me with food, his daughter friended me on facebook and chatted with me in English and when my family came home they took me back, telling me that I was welcome anytime. I'm telling you, the people in the country will bend over backwards, and then walk on their hands to take care of you. I didn't get as much sleep as I wanted that night but I got to meet some of my amazing neighbors and was reminded that I cannot get into too much trouble in this country because people are looking out for me. They want me to be happy and safe and full while visiting their nation. They want me to love this land as they do and to understand that they genuinely love me for being their guest, invited or not. I felt so relieved when I was brought into that home. I felt so happy when they brought me that cay. And I felt so welcome when they started making up a bed for me in case no one came home that night. They would have taken me in off the street and put me up, just because I was there. The fact that I am trying desperatly to learn about their country might help, but I think everyone who looks for it can feel the love in this country. I know I've been engulfed in it.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Well guys, I apologize for the delay. Good news though, my family now has wifi that I can use! Perhaps I will actually start updating this on a regular basis. Crazy thought. They also now have air conditioning but it is not hot enough to use it yet. It really isn't too hot in Baku yet so long as you don't go anywhere or do anything but sit around. Or if you are a Bakuvian. Hence my issue with the heat. Now to update you on the craziness that is currently my life.

Last week in class we learned about celebrations in Azerbaijan and compared them to ones in the US. I now can tell you, in Azerbaijani, the differences and similarities between Novruz Bayrami and Christmas. Also between US and Azerbaijani weddings. The girls on this trip are discovering that first of all getting married quite young is not unusual. Two girls on the program went to a peer tutor's house and were informed that they needed to get married as soon as they are done with school. They are currently 21 and 22 years old. I think maybe the biological clock starts ticking sooner here or something. Anyway, getting married is a long and complicated process which requires extensive information gathering by the entire family on both sides about the other side, bargaining on the part of the parents and the boy's family convincing the girl's family that their son/nephew/grandson/vaguely related male relative deserves their daughter. Me and Matt, the other guy in my class, had to practice with our imaginary son. Quite impressively he had discovered a new element, won a Nobel prize and had tenure at UC Berkley and was only 25. We make pretty great kids, what can I say. Then I laughed until I cried. My grammar class is a struggle for me, mostly because my goal here is not to speak in the passive tense with a primary focus on the object of the sentence in the conditional. I would like to buy stamps and not get so lost that I die. I don't ask for much.

In terms of after class cultural activity we went one day to Shirvanshalar Sarayi, the palace of the rulers of Azerbaijan from 861 to 1539 though most of this time the capital wasn't in Baku. Then we went to the 4th of July party (on the 3rd) at the embassy and the police watched me change my dress in the street (as in every policeman in Baku, I swear they'll be talking about me for years). No worries I didn't show anything more scandalous than my knees and shoulders, but it was liberating to do something so rebellious here. I felt American. My new mantra is "do something scandalous every day". It's not too difficult to achieve.Then I watched a bunch of middle aged diplomats and bureaucrats hit the American beer. I can't blame them, it's America's birthday. We ought to enjoy. Also I saw the Caspian Dreamers perform (look them up on youtube, it's awesome). They had 4 fangirls at that party, all members of our group. And they were still the most popular ladies men at the place. Did I mention there are not many expat women? Mostly I think it was an event to try and hire as many of us as possible because practically no one in the US can speak Azerbaijani. I will be in demand someday! We also listened to a lecture about Azerbaijan's exports (have you heard of oil?) went to the Teze Bazar (fresh market), where the meat and cheese section smelled a little less than teze. So I bought raspberries instead. We learned how to make qutab from our teachers (a flatbread filled with greens and then grilled and slathered in butter) and listened to them laugh at how wretched we were at it. Friday was a treat though because I spent the afternoon hanging out with friends and learning how the grammar actually works through a special tutorial session, finding out our activities would be curtailed because we are doing 3 extra every week, had a short stop at home to Skype with my sister Mary and then we went as a group to the philharmonic of Baku. I will say for the Soviets, they produce great musicians. It was so beautiful. I felt calm wash over me as I sat in the theater and I realized that currently I am content with my life. I do not have the frustration of the first week or the euphoria of the second, but instead a happy medium where I have no desire to be anywhere else, or to change anything about what I am doing. My Azerbaijani is coming along to the point where I speak it in my sleep. I am making friends. I know the city. I do not know that I can ask for much more. I will update you all about my weekend trip to Quba once my homework is done. It is a good story, I promise. Until then goruserik!

Monday, July 2, 2012

                                              The Lenkeran River and the Talish Mountains in the Distance
                                                  The Bazar in Lenkeran
                                     Me and my peer tutor Gulnara at the top of Qiz Qalasi with the flame towers in the background
Hey Guys! I survived (and thrived during) my trip to Lenkeran. To round out last week we did learn how to cook the national dish, plov, kind of. I stood in the kitchen for a while watching the teachers cook and slowly turning in a circle so as to rotisserie myself on the massive stove and oven that they had going in the school kitchen. Then I decided to peace out and sat and did homework instead. We were fed the fruits of our nonexistent labor, which was delicious and I discovered that my teachers are also good Azerbaijani housewives who tell me to "eat, eat!". Also Azerbaijani children are told that if they clear their plate their future husband/wife will be gorgeous. I figured it couldn’t hurt, right? Friday we went to the botanical gardens and got rained on. We all tried our best to lose the tour and ended up being the loud but kind of funny Americans. We can’t seem to get away from it. We also saw the saddest looking raccoon I hope I ever see in a tiny cage in the gardens for no reason that I can think of. Part of you really wanted to just shoot it and put it out of its misery.

Friday night at 11 I caught the train to Lenkeran. It was, as expected, Soviet-tastic. I can highly recommend it to anyone who wants to have a super bizarre experience. Monica, Matt and I ended up traveling together in a cabin the size of an American closet with an Iranian gentleman. He and his friend came in and asked us questions for a good hour before we expressed that we seriously needed to go to sleep or we would die. They wanted to know who we were, what we were doing, were we really learning Azerbaijani, what we knew about Iran, did we want to go to Iran and whether they could practice their English with us. So yes, they were maybe spies. Please please please US government still hire me. I promise I was not friends with the Iranian spy. It was actually really funny because they dressed in clothes tighter than I’ve seen since being on campus surrounded by sorority girls. Like paint those v-necks were. It sucked when I wanted to sleep though because then I didn’t feel super comfortable changing into pj-esque clothes and ended up sleeping in jeans on the most uncomfortable bench anyone has ever invented. The toilet also looked like something out of 1984, all metal and pipes and bolts. Should you ever need a good horror/torture scene in a movie please, go to Azerbaijan and use the train bathrooms. Best set ever. I slept pretty well considering and woke up to see a lush rich environment of cay plantations out my window. We pulled into Lenkeran at about 8:30 and were met at the train station by Daniel, a Peace Corps Volunteer in town. We played "pick out the American" but he made it easy by wearing overalls and a cowboy hat. We walked to the home he shares with his wife along the train track. Seeing as only 1 train runs along it and it had left the station after dropping us off it was pretty safe. We saw one of the army barracks in town mustering for the morning (and did not take photos) before arriving safe and sound.

After an amazing American breakfast of granola and coffee we went to the bazar for shopping and chatting and bought souvenirs and food. I suck at bargaining as per expected but seriously, when the hand knitted socks are 2 manat a pair ($2.40) I can’t feel good about knocking 50 cents off the price. I may be a student but a can shell out that much. We went and got lunch at a cayxana and were put in a different room to avoid upsetting the all-male clientele. The food was amazing though, local levengi (roasted chicken stuffed with mashed walnuts and what tastes like salt, much tastier than it sounds) plov, tandoor bread and the inevitable cucumber and tomato. Cay was served as well and for the 5 of us a huge meal was 16 manat. The regions are much much cheaper than Baki but also a world apart. Lenkeran is a town of about 40,000 but it seems like everyone has a garden with birds and a cow that wanders through town eating and comes home every so often to be milked. People fish out of the river while standing waist high in the water, spreading their nets by hands in the morning light. Lenkeran is also the largest town in Southern Azerbaijan, about 15 miles north of the Iranian border, squeezed between the Caspian and Talish mountains. It’s a beautiful town, but as per all places in Azerbaijan it has issues. The mayor is new since the last one was so corrupt he finally pissed off the local population. Teachers get their jobs by buying them, they still don’t have gas lines and underage marriage happens on a regular if not frequent basis. We got the chance to meet a few more Americans in the Peace Corps working in the region and they were quite the bunch: hard working, funny, a little jaded but still passionate about their work and forming relationships with those around them. They all went to a giant wedding on Saturday night. They ran out of seats so we didn’t get to crash so instead I went to bed at 10. It was awesome.

The next morning we got up, chatted, enjoyed the quiet and then headed out to Lerik. This is a small village about an hour’s drive from Lenkeran which is nestled right in the mountains. We got the phone number of a girl in the village whose dad was really active in Community Based Tourism with the comment that I should call her since she wore the hijab and it would be inappropriate to have a man call her. After a terrifying but exhilarating ride in a taxi we arrived in Lerik, got stared at by the police (who ended up calling Elchin, our guide since foreigners had showed up in town) and heard their comments about us "Yeah, their foreigners, but they speak Azerbaijani, they said on the phone that they’re students..". We were taken to the family home, introduced to all the neighbors who stopped by, fed, and taken up into the mountains. It was one of the most stunning places I have ever encountered in my life. I cannot tell you in words how beautiful it was. We had a storm over the weekend so it was raining just a little bit and the fog hung low over us. Visibility was severely reduced but you could catch glimpses of the mountains across the valley, the sparse vegetation and grooves running vertically that made them look like the ribs of a sleeping animal. Small farms came in and out of your vision, a small square with a metal roof, perched on the side of the hill, surrounded by farming paraphernalia, eking out its existence as much as its inhabitants were. You felt as though you were traveling back in time, working towards the middle ages, when there was inevitably a swirling mist and the ominous caw of a raven. The grass looked almost golden from the strange combination of low light and a thin sheen of water. The roads were dirt turning slowly to mud and without anything resembling order. The dominant colors were gray and brown but wildflowers in brilliant sunray colors, yellow furze and brilliant orange and red poppies popped up when despair seemed imminent. I wish I could tell it better than this but I am physically incapable of finding the words to express the beauty of the place.

We ended up driving around for a couple hours, playing tag with the advance party of bodyguards for a government minister in a convoy of black SUVs, watching the climate change 3 or 4 times, driving in and out of rain, exploring caves and scenic overlooks, visiting a tiny village and getting an handful of delicious cherries to eat on the ride home, learning the word for calf, listening to Talish rather than Azerbaijani act as the dominant tongue, being informed that the Iranian border was on the other side of the hill, guarded by soldiers with automatic weapons, looking at old Soviet "factories" (with watchtowers, coincidentally situated on the border?) and laughing and chatting with Elchin. Back at his home we met more family, got fed again and took a photo of his beautiful family before the heart stopping trip back to Lenkeran which no longer fazed us due to Elchin’s driving style. We caught the train back to Baki last night, sharing the cabin with a monosyllabic young Azerbaijani, studying and having everyone on the train come down to our car, look in, listen for a bit, laugh, point and then walk back. I discussed the feasibility of charging entrance for looking at the Americans. We slept (briefly) and made it to the University for classes, discussion and an after school dance class that got increasingly silly as the time went on. Eventually we just asked if this was legit or if they just wanted to see what they could get the Americans to do. If you need a comic act for an event coming up in Baki, just give us a ring 48 hours in advance so we can clear our schedules. Because we’re funny. I suppose I should let you go now, I’ve included some pictures this time as a reward for reading the stream of consciousness convoluted monologue that I produce. I hope that you all have an awesome week, because if this city and country is an amazing as I think it I know I will. Goruserik!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Well guys, I’m back for more. Sunday was probably the most chill day I have had here in Baku, which means that at home it was still pretty nuts. I got to sleep in for the first time in weeks which was a beautiful moment. I had forgotten what waking up not tired feels like. It’s awesome. You should try it. I did homework in the morning and studied my vocab some since I had two tests on Monday. I tried to help my host mother in the kitchen and was rewarded. I am now considered competent enough to pulverize mint with my fingers. I am moving up the ladder baby, watch, I’ll be slicing cucumbers by the end of the program. She talked to me for most of the time and I understood but it was really difficult to respond sometimes. This was not just because it was all in Azerbaijani but also because we were talking about things like how rocking life was under the Soviets. I have very little to say on the matter seeing as I come from the arch enemy of the aforementioned power and also was born after the breakup of the USSR. My responses therefore consisted of head nods and appreciative noises when she talked about the lack of wealth disparity, having jobs for everyone and friendly relations with neighbors of various ethnicities. It’s so hard to sort fact from fiction especially since I know I come from a place where a very different bias exists in the people, media and history books.  It’s very difficult to know what to think. Azerbaijan is so old and so chock full of national pride you can’t really tell what’s going on. I have come to expect cynicism and sarcastic comments about all manner of things from my American compatriots but that doesn’t seem to exist here.
    Getting back to Sunday, I went with my host mom sister and aunt to an outlet mall of sketchy amazing. It was really empty and prices still seemed super high to me. About half was still under construction but it was an exciting car ride to say the least. My host sister had a gigantic fight with my host mom about buying an item at another store and cutting off the tags when she got home because she liked it and her mom didn’t (nor did I if I’m honest and I was asked you can be assured). I want to tell her, pick your battles sweetheart. One jumpsuit is not worth this. Save it for something big. I suppose I fought a lot with my parents at 18 but I also knew that I was heading out soon and would get freedom at college. That doesn’t seem to exist here until you get married. I’d have a long wait. I then went to the local park and wrote in my journal for a bit while they duked it out. When I got home all was settled and I had time to do some writing for this and other applications and to study some more.  For dinner we had amazing plov, one of the national dishes which consisted of rice, lentils, dill, chicken, egg, potatoes and garlic yogurt on top. There seem to be about 6000 different types of plov, all of them tasty and labor intensive. We’re learning how to make it on Thursday. Considering how well I usually do cooking plain rice this should be awesome. After dinner I announced my intention of going for a run. My host sister decided to come with. She wanted to go right away and after several wardrobe changes (no long sleeves aren’t good when it’s still 75-80 out, no jeans aren’t good either you’ll want to be comfortable, no I’d skip the flip flops your feet will die) we set off. I tried to explain breathing rhythm and going slow but I don’t think it set in. As a result we went an average of 50 feet before stopping to run in place or catch some breath depending on who you were. I made it a super short run due to my fear of killing her and she was shocked when we went home so early. She asked why it was so short. I didn’t even try to answer.
Tonight I met up with a friend from MSU, friend meaning I facebook stalked him after reading in the State News that he was from Azerbaijan and cajoling him into a coffee date. Luckily I did not creep him out too badly and so we met up and went to the bulvar and then out bowling. It was so much fun to chat with someone about the country and get real feedback about why things are the way they are. I can’t express the kind of questions I want to ask in Azerbaijani and often I find that answers aren’t in fluent enough English for me to fully understand. Ergo this was lovely. Also, he made a fantastic host. I have yet to meet an unkind Azerbaijani. They might stare at me all day long but they are unfailingly polite, friendly and pleasantly surprised when I tell them I’m in country to study their language.  I think everyone is pleased when people learn their native tongue but with less commonly (with Azerbaijani read: never) taught languages, people seem especially pleased.  My conversations aren’t complicated but I did get to turn down a proposal today. Sorry guys, here to work on my Azeri, not an Mrs. We all laughed though and when I can make people laugh at my words for reasons other than me being incomprehensible I’m pleased. This week we went to Qiz Qalasi (Maiden’s Tower) as well as the Nation History Museum. Yes there were cannon for those of you who know how they haunt my life. They remain in the picture. The view from Qiz Qalasi was stunning though and the breeze was fantastic. We also learned how to sew miniature hats and listened to a lecture about gender relations in Baki about which I was highly skeptical. I’m sorry but I just I don’t think that the Soviets “solved” problems. They repressed them to the point where they could pretend they didn’t exist. And now everyone is surprised when these practices come back into being. Suppression is not a solution. It reminded me why I want to go into public health, since so many people still see simple regulation as the answer.  People won’t stop drinking if you make it illegal. It’s been tried.  Also the lecture seemed to look down on people from the regions as very backward and on women who wear the hijab as the same. If it’s her decision I don’t know why it’s so backward. Hot yes. Also the use of the word “traditional” makes me cringe due to all the anthropology training. I’m off on a trip to the regions (rayonlar) this weekend. I’ll be in Lenkeran which is near the Iranian border (I promise, no backpacking) and hopefully we’ll crash a wedding. I had a great day today, one of those I-love-this-place-where-I-am-living type days. I’m starting to feel much more at ease at class, with the people around me, with the language and with so many aspects of Baki. I walked around by myself, spoke Azerbaijani, took the metro and gave directions to a Turkish tourist. I’m telling you, life is good here in Baki. Plus I got my Resident Card today which means I am super legal and legit living here in Baki. I do love an ID card with a photo shopped picture. But that’s Azerbaijan, it makes you either want to shake your head or laugh at loud. You may as well do the latter. That’s my plan at least.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Hey guys. So I haven’t died (yet) I just don’t have internet at home which makes posting a little more difficult. First and foremost the dirty dozen is no longer a dozen. We lost a member this week to food allergies. He left on Friday to go back home. He was my commuting buddy so it was a little sad. It also made it feel a little like we’re living in Agatha Christie’s And then there were none. Everyone’s eyeing each other. Will that one get Baku belly and be shipped out? They’ll definitely get heat stroke. A car crash for them. I could totally see a car crash. I am continually amazed that I haven’t died yet under the wheels of an automobile here. My walk to class consists of going down a street that is supposed to house 6 lanes of traffic (usually about 8 cars are vying for position) with no sidewalk on one side and the sidewalk on the other under construction. When I say under construction what I mean is that it is strewn with bricks, gravel, wire, dirt, mud, Fanta bottles, cigarette packages and if it is the afternoon power tools since these seem to get left out for the lunch break (approximately 11am-3pm). The crosswalks are secretly meant to eliminate all pedestrians from the city I think since they are typically in places where it is physically impossible to cross the road without serious physical impairment resulting. I will be fearless when I get back to East Lansing and probably try to walk along several highways. Also the past week has been nuts in terms of stuff to do. They keep us pretty busy here. For example:

We went to the American Embassy which coincidentally had the slowest security I have ever seen in my entire life. You think the TSA is slow? They haven’t got game compared to the locally hired guards here. It amazes me because everywhere else I think the security guards really don’t care. We went to the American Councils office, listened to a lecture about nation building in Azerbaijan (it isn’t done yet), had a tea/dance party (if you want me to try and dance again it had better be spiked tea next time), met our peer tutors, had a trip to the history museum cancelled due to visiting dignitaries stealing our English language guides, celebrated the fifth anniversary of the American Center in Baku with speeches that no one listened to and baklava and went to an Azeri language opera. This was three days. Plus we have 5 hours of class a day and approximately 1-2 hours of homework. I swear I will send postcards. Just maybe when I get back.

Classes have been remarkable. We have three teachers and each focuses on a different subject. We have speaking, reading and grammar every day. I have one other student with me in the intermediate class and sometimes we annoy each other but mostly we try to help each other out since we’re both hanging on for dear life. Nervous laughter abounds. I know that my Azerbaijani is improving really rapidly but I keep wanting it to go faster. I still sound like a total idiot when I speak. But I have started just chatting with Azerbaijanis. I talk some with my peer tutor but also with shopkeepers, children, a lot with my host family, while writing in my journal, asking directions and when trying to visit nonexistent galleries in Icheri Seher.

Actually that’s a really good story. On Saturday we went to Qobustan, which is about an hour outside of Baku to look at the petroglyphs there. They are really beautiful and fascinating and the museum is state of the art but you have to ask yourself, who thought it was an awesome idea to go to the desert at noon in late June to wander around? Also they got snacks for us on the bus which consisted of bread and water. This is kind of a bread culture (to put it mildly) and it’s so funny to watch all of us Americans get so frustrated with getting fed bread and hot tea constantly. There were several suggestions of what should be done with the bread, none of which seemed very practical or unlikely to result in international incidents. Anyway after Qobustan we got back and I walked to Icheri seher with a friend on the program. She wanted to see the Center for Contemporary Art there. We got there and walked past it once. When we went in we discovered a room with some student paintings on the wall. Also Salim, who must be the most lonely employee I have ever met. He came upstairs and chatted and then brought us down to the basement which seems to be the place where they have poetry readings/other hippie type activities. He made us cay and we chatted in Azeri for more than an hour. Eventually we were able to get away after photos, a cigarette (for him) and turning down various offers of free tours around the city. I do know his entire family’s life history now though. We’re tight. Monica (the friend I was with) is in the beginner class so I ended up doing all the talking. It was fun to stretch my wings a little though with no fear of falling into an ocean. We then wandered the old walled portion of the city for a few hours, stopping to take photographs of the 6 million street cats, children playing outside their homes and a visit to the local coin museum (60 qepik or about 80-90 cents with your student card). I spent the night at the Bulvar, a park which stretches along the Caspian for miles, sitting at an outdoor café with some kids from the program, and just laughing at the ridiculousness of being in Baku studying Azerbaijani for the summer. Because really, who does that? It’s good to have friends that you can laugh with about the strange things our host families do (like rearrange your clothes every day or make you do shots of the tap water) the various local superstitions, the heat, the humidity, the intensity of speaking Azerbaijani all the time and just the general reality of being on a CLS. I can recommend it so far, but with the inserted comment that you’d better have hutzpah. You will want to scream, laugh, cry, do pushups, run away, explore, drink 6 gallons of water a day, order something other than the local beer/food/water/soda/doner, run into traffic, demand personal space, hang out with your family, retreat to McDonalds for an infusion of Americana and air conditioning and then get up and do it all again. Welcome to Baku my friends.