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.
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.