Well guys, I’m already a bad blogger. Life has been a little crazy this past week. I traveled to Washington on Tuesday, arriving in time to miss all of that day’s orientation. Full points me. I think no matter what airline you travel you will be late. This is as sure as death and taxes. Wednesday was absolutely nuts, with planned group activities from 8:30 until about 6. We did so many question and answer sessions I thought I was going to lose my ever-loving mind. I had no more questions to ask. I was out of questions. We had two men from the Azerbaijani embassy come and visit us which was pretty cool. The one guy had perhaps the most stern face I have ever seen in my life. We decided that he looked like either the security for the chatty diplomat or the bouncer for the embassy. This was during lunch but no one talked because the man kept looking around and we all thought he was pissed at us for eating so we sat there in silence. If it hadn’t been such a serious moment it would have been hilarious. They brought us a book collection about Azerbaijan in official embassy bags. The books are cool but then we were all terrified that they would put our bags into the over weight category when we checked in. Luckily, everyone packed light.
A little about my group now. We are the Azerbaijan dirty dozen of 2012. Six women and 6 men, we come from all over the country, from New York to Idaho. None of us study the same field nor have the same reason for learning the language. Three are grad students, several have just graduated and the rest of us are working on our BA’s. We vary a good deal in age as well. I’ll be 20 in July; the oldest on the program will turn 30 later that month. Some of us have definite plans; some just wanted an adventure and spun it well in their application. Everyone deserves to be here no doubt about it. They have the balls to be here which I think deserves praise in itself.
On Thursday I wandered around DC with some of my fellow travelers visiting the art museums and the like and that evening we were taken to the airport, to inhabit airplanes and terminals for the next 24 hours or so. We had a pretty easy timeline but the flight from DC to London was somehow just terrible. I have no idea why, probably because I couldn’t sleep and was sitting next to strange folks. In London we went through security again and then sat in a strange dreamlike state, surrounded by shoppers and stores and people who seemed to have energy, which was extremely disorienting. We got on our flight, which serviced Baku and Tblisi since apparently there aren’t enough people who want to go to either to fill up a plane. The flight was still maybe ¾ full at best. After another 4 hours in the air and a total of 9 time zones crossed we arrived in Baku. We stepped off the plane into the open air and were herded by a group of men in no one type of uniform (since that’s pretty boring) into a bus which drove us approximately 50 feet to a doorway. Why we had to take a bus is a good question. Any ideas would be much appreciated. We cleared immigration with a bit of hassle since all visas to Azerbaijan are dealt with in Baku. Since we were coming just after Eurovision, of which every spectator needed a visa, the office was a little swamped. We never decided how it was that some people got 90 day visas, some 60, some 70 and a couple 30. The 30 day visas run out in the middle of the program, and so penciled in at the bottom are instructions that the visa will in fact last much longer. Many important looking stamps were put over top seal the deal. So too are most of the visas lacking photos. A signature and stamp in its place will suffice. The first 30 plus another month penciled in visa caused a bit of healthy skepticism but we all got through. After collecting our baggage we were met by CLS staff with cell phones and laminated cards printed in English and Azeri informing the reader that we are American citizens and observe the right to call the embassy. This is since the first night last year some of the participants got stopped by the police and paid a hefty local fine. A “local” fine. The policemen got fired later for messing with them but the program organizers did not want a repeat performance, hence the cards. The drive from the airport was a little surreal. New walls with a Turkish/Persian flair had been built all along the highway. They weren’t high though and every so often you would see glimpses of what I can only call slums. I had wondered why from the air there were large swaths of land with very few lights. I think it was these neighborhoods. Azerbaijan has a huge number of Internally Displaced Persons from the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. These neighborhoods are a result of that and migration to Baku, which is far richer than anywhere else in the country. The streets were a combination of Ladas, a Soviet made car that will last till Armageddon, and new Mercedes. The new architecture in Baku is all glass and neon lights.
That first night we got money at the ATM, went to a small local baqqal (store) and bought water and minutes for our phones, which we are responsible for always keeping on and with enough money on it to make phone calls etc. We walked around HeydarAliyev Park, named for the first president of Azerbaijan in the Post-Soviet era. His son now leads the country. Pretty much everything is named after HeydarAliyev, so at least it’s easy to guess what something is called. The next morning we walked to the Azerbaijan University of Languages, where we will be studying. We learned about the university and the program, were introduced to our teachers and our peer tutors (though they knew who they were paired with and we still don’t know) and got an address from the Director of the University who seems to be very influential in the current government. We had lunch and I got my first verbal lashing for using Turkish rather than Azerbaijani words. I think this might be a theme this summer. As a perfectionist I don’t deal well with rejection so I think I need to lower my expectations for this summer. I am just going to struggle, especially since the only other person in intermediate Azerbaijani has a full summer of intensive training under his belt. Here is the diving board. Off I go.
After lunch we had a talk about the expat community in Baku in which we essentially learned that we shouldn’t hang out with them and that it’s about 80% male so they were very excited that we were coming in. It’s very rich, very insular and very debauched from what we heard. Then we had some Azerbaijani language classes in which first I was incredibly embarrassed that I knew nothing and then got pissed and thought, “Dammit I’m just as capable of doing this as anyone else, I will get this”. We had a short time to check our emails etc and then we met our host families. I’m living with the Haqverdiyev family. First goal is how to pronounce the name. I have a host mother Saida, a sister Nigar who is 17 and a brother Tamerlan who is 13. I think I’ve shared about 3 words with Tamerlan but Nigar and I get along very well. I think I shock her a bit. I may become the bad American influence. Whoops. That night we chatted and I unpacked, we ate and then I worked for a bit and slept really well. Today, Sunday, we went as a group to get more photos taken for various IDs (which were then photo shopped which I feel like makes them less useful for identification), got metro cards, saw IceriSeher (the Old City), the QizQulesi (Maiden’s Tower) Bulvar (the boulevard along the Caspian) and a mall. Baku is a beautiful city in its own way. It’s a strange mix of so many different eras and socioeconomic realities. The pre soviet Russian Empire architecture is gorgeous, then comes Soviet chic and now ultra-modern. The parks in this city are perfectly manicured and yet look eerily similar. It’s a dry city and hot as all get out. There is a breeze that comes of the Caspian. They have a saying here that the breeze is their gift from God, to make Baku habitable. Hopefully I’ll get something to make it so for me too. If you have a specific questions please ask. My own thoughts are still very confused, hopefully I’ll sound a little more composed later.