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!
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.