Thursday, November 4, 2010

We wanna hold your hand.

Most Peace Corps volunteers in this country would agree that Azerbaijani children aged ten and under are some of the greatest human beings on the planet. Why? Well, think about what makes a kid, a kid. You know, those qualities we cherish. Innocence. Happiness. Loving to have fun. Smiling constantly. Never being shy. These are exhibited in youngins around this country across the board, making me look forward to my sixth grade class with Mrs. Adile.

It isn’t until Azerbaijani kids make it to about eighth grade that you gotta be careful. For some reason, the innocence stops, and boys and girls slip into their “rightful places,” with females being too quiet, and males being…well, sometimes, at least…jerks. Something clicks, and I can’t really put my finger on what it is. Perhaps it’s a “greater” perception of the world around them, of the qualities expected of them, while the typical behavior for those of lesser age is merely labeled as childlike.

I can’t give an exact explanation; all I can really say is that it’s interesting. It also makes the “balıcılar,” or “little ones,” awesome to relate and spend time with. One student in a conversation club brings her ten-year-old sister, Aysel. Not only is she the size of my pinky finger, but she’s also one of the most talkative people I know in the village. And not just talkative in the sense of blabbering off whatever she feels like. She has tact, a sophisticated, conversational way about her that other females of greater age don’t always show. The two of us could walk down the road and talk the whole way. She, and other classmates of hers, speak clearly and audibly, while many older students do not. Mrs. Adile and I often have to tell students to speak loudly ‘cause we can’t hear them. They’re shy and afraid to make a mistake, which makes a short dialogue with Aysel a welcomed change.

And, with this being said, it doesn’t surprise me when I’m running down the street and two tiny children make a request. I saw a little boy and girl walking together a couple weeks ago, so I stopped and said hi. Then the boy looked at me, reached his hand out, and said, “We wanna hold your hand.” What do you say to that? Of course I grasped the young man’s hand, and we walked and talked a short distance to the kids’ house.

There’s something about being a kid, where you don’t really care about where the other person comes from, or what gender he/she may be, or how he talks. You just, well, are what you are, without other people telling you how you ought to be. Seeing those two meter-high children holding hands reminded me that you’d never see that with teenagers in this village, or even married couples. It’s a beautiful sight, a symbol of the universal qualities of children everywhere, who just want someone to walk home with.

And, again, I see an example of qualities that not only affect me and Azerbaijanis in Gumlag Village, but everyone.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Wow, what a beautiful day, although I’m not outside at the moment to enjoy it. The end of August is a really nice time here, as the weather cools down a lot, but it’s still sunny and green. I must admit, though, that I’m looking forward to fall, my favorite season, which is also very nice here.

One thing that makes this time of year so interesting in Qumlaq is that people are starting to harvest hazelnuts. You know, those little white things they use to make Nutella. There’re many ways to use hazelnuts, and here is where many of them’re harvested. In my own yard, even, there are several nut trees from which my landlord and his family have been shaking the green, husked money-makers to the ground, where everyone, including the three and four year-old grandchildren, pitches in, putting them in little buckets (I must say the sight of those little, wobbly kids picking up the nuts and putting them away is painfully cute.). As I type this entry, in fact, there’s a small mound of hazelnuts sitting in the room next to mine, and, eventually, they’ll be run through a machine to get the husks off, then sold. There’re all kinds of nut buying and selling in the village during this season. Many people take them to the store and exchange kilos of them for everyday products. I’m not sure how fair of a price they’re getting, though.

And that’s pretty much the story here in Qumlaq as of today. People are, generally, healthy and happy, and I can’t complain, either, especially with what happened a few weeks ago.

Did I tell you all that, during A.B.L.E. Camp, the other volunteers and I cut our hair into mohawks? You know, just as a fun, campy thing, we did that, and I must say my hair cuts into a pretty solid mohawk. We went about the week with these funny hairstyles and had a great time, but I noted something interesting. Okay, for one thing, I was concerned at how folks around Azerbaijan (You know, the normal, local folks.) would take to these haircuts. You certainly don’t see an Azerbaijani sporting a racing stripe of hair down the head very often, and, hell, we get stared at enough already. Well, one day, I went into town with some other volunteers to use the Internet and help get supplies. The mohawk slipped my mind, but as we were driving back up the hill to where camp was, I thought for a second and decided, “You know, they didn’t pay any more attention to me than they always do.” And it was the truth. It was just like any other day in the ‘baijan, asking people for directions here and there, maybe getting a stare or two, but nothing out of the ordinary. So what’s up with that?

And it continued. Camp eventually ended, and Charlie and I brought our students back to Oğuz. Once the kids went their separate ways, we split off and had lunch together at a kabob place by the river. We sat there, had lunch, chilled out, and a guy even stopped and chatted with us for a moment, but there was no discussion about our hair, which they had to have noticed. I mean, especially Charlie’s hair, which sticks up enough even without a mohawk. We just looked at each other, dumbfounded, and asked, “What’s going on here?”

Well, we’re foreign, we decided, which, of course, is no news to us. Shoot, on a day-to-day basis, we can’t help but be noticed, in some way or another, as outsiders, and, eventually, we realized having crappy looking mohawks didn’t make much of a difference. We’re already weird enough. Of what significance is a haircut? Not much. So what does this mean? I mean, what’s the bigger picture here? Is there a lesson to be learned?

Hell yes. It means we can do whatever we want, which is liberating. I never realized pulling the foreigner card could free you up so much. I think I’m gonna start wearing an American flag Speedo with large boots down the village road from now on, and if someone questions it, I can just say, “Hey, I’m not your nationality. We have different traditions,” which should derive a long head nod of recognition and understanding from the other party.

This is going to be great.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

One of us

I’m feeling a bit hazy this morning, and I was slow getting up, as last night was filled with food, conversation, and cherry-plum liquor with my landlord and his family. Now, mind you, the women weren’t drinking, but we were, and, though I’m not hungover, I can still kinna taste the brew that made me all tingly with the first shot.

But that’s the small price to pay when you’re having a good time. I have nothing to complain about, as today’s cool just like yesterday, with cloud cover remaining from the day before. People are wearing sweaters in late August. Who’da thought?

But that’s neither here nor there, as I feel I’ve gotta write about something I’ve noticed for a long time, from when Charlie and I first had our tea time interrupted by a crazy looking gentleman who lumbered up to us and yelled, “Bon appetite!” and stared at us for a while.

I don’t know his name, but he’s mentally handicapped in some way and generally goes about the day walking around and scrounging up change. It was a little awkward for Charlie and me while he stood there staring at us (Can’t imagine why.), but he was promptly led away by another kind gentleman, and we went about our business.

But I was impressed at how the community members handled it. I love this country, but folks around here sometimes have varying reactions to different people. But they clearly knew this fellow well and treated him as an equal. No fuss, no nothing. And I’ve also noticed the same behavior with other people. One day I was having lunch at a little joint by the bazaar, and this guy was sitting down having a cigarette with another gentleman across the table. This dude was just going off, rambling like crazy while the other guy just sat and nodded. It was like any other conversation, and the, um, more mentally “with it” guy didn’t bat and eye at his companion.

And there’s another man I see a lot on the buses. He takes the money from the passengers. A heavy-set guy, he does a good job and I believe is deaf. With his high-pitched shrills, he may not derive utter respect from everybody, but most people treat him well. In fact, it was this guy that made me want to write this short entry. I saw him just the other day at the bus station. He was having tea at a table with a bunch of other guys, and the smile on his face has been stuck in my mind for days. It’s just good to see happy people in general, and I’ve learned how important it is to be kind to everyone, whatever their condition.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Project: English Resource Room

After twenty months of teaching, struggling with the language, and varying progress with teachers and students, it’s good to get a solid, stable project going, where I can help leave a mark on the Gumlag school, my place of work since December ’09.

It’s been an interesting journey, and I’m honestly very proud of my counterparts and students, who’ve been so good to me and have done what I asked. I just like being in a place where everyone’s familiar with one another (I suppose that’s not difficult here.), where I’m respected. It feels good to take on this project to, in the least, say thanks to those who’ve put up with me for so long.

Let me describe what we have going here: an English resource room that’ll occupy one of the second floor classrooms in our lower school building. My mom and dad have been there. It’s where we had a couple conversation clubs the afternoon they visited the school. My good friend Jordan Macha also saw it one day, when I wrote fratty sayings on the new chalkboard. And Carly Edgington, my old AZ5 friend, also participated in a club or two there last summer.

I’ve spent a lot of time here, and so the opportunity to fill some shelves with grammar and storybooks and set up a T.V. and D.V.D. player with some English movies is a great one, one that’ll surely be appreciated by Gumlag’s three hundred something students and four English teachers. Heck, I’ll love it while I’m still here, as I’m dying for some new books to teach these young folks.

It should be an excellent finished project, but here’s the kicker. You see, the funding is coming from a program called Peace Corps Partnership, an organized way to solidify donations from folks back home. Folks like…well…you, the reader. Yeah, I’m also asking for money, if you’d like to donate. Any contribution to reach our $1380 goal would mean so much to us.

You can get more details at the project website:

If that link doesn’t work, just go to, and search for “Gahan”. At the website, you can read more about the project and donate, if you want. However, despite what the description says, we won’t be doing room repairs with the grant money, as there isn’t enough room in the budget to do that.

Whether you’d like to donate or not, check out the website to learn a little more about our project. I’m excited about it, and I enjoy sharing the idea with those that’re interested. Thanks a lot for your interest and support of our work.

That's not your glass.

I actually just got a text message from Nərgiz, a university student who comes to conversation clubs at my school while she’s at home. She’s actually at home most of the time, as she only goes back to Baku State University occasionally for testing and paper writing.

She was texting about class tomorrow, as she often does the correspondence work with other students to see who can come to class, especially considering it’s summer vacation and students come and go. She’s a great help, and her family’s also been super nice to me. I visit them often ‘cause they’re such great company, and, really, it’s just nice to be with people that appreciate you, in Peace Corps or anywhere else. I speak mainly from the Peace Corps perspective because, as I go through the day, interactions can be uncomfortable, being the foreigner. Plenty are good; don’t get me wrong. But I just like being at a place like Nərgiz’s house because it’s kind of a haven, a place where I’m just a friend and not an outsider. I can help clear the table or pour my own tea without feeling that awkward “You’re a guest. You shouldn’t do anything” pressure that honestly kinna pisses me off at times. I mean, let’s get serious. Being referred to as a “guest” after living in a place for over twenty months could get to anyone, so I’m not so ashamed anymore at my knee jerking due to someone saying “hello” to me on the street instead of “salam”. Seriously. Not necessary.

And so, like I said, a little comfort here and there goes a long way. That’s why I was pleased one evening while hanging out with Nərgiz’s family. It was a pretty typical night, just sitting around watching T.V. and talking, and we were about to have a cup of tea. Nərgiz brought out the teapot and glasses, and I took one, prompting the response: “That’s not your glass.”

And, at that moment, I realized that was true. I mean, I picked up just a glass that was available, not knowing that “my glass” existed, but as I retraced my days at her house, I concluded that, yes, I’d always had tea from the same glass, one that was different from everybody else’s glass. How interesting. How generous. How…well…friendly.

I mean, that’s the real word here: friendly. They don’t break out the fancy meal on my account or call me a guest all the time. They’re just friends, like anybody anywhere. Your buddies down the street. Your muchachos. I like to think they set a glass aside for me because they might’ve wanted me to come over often. I don’t know. I just know that that polite, almost familial, way of relating with another needs to be contagious in the world, as we often have trouble relating with people that aren’t in our bubble.

I mean, we’re only human, with the same strengths and troubles that make us who we are, with certainly relatable experiences that define our lives, so why should we avoid or act awkwardly around a person that doesn’t fit in our realm? They clearly do. We just gotta figure out how. And if you could look in the other party’s head, wherever he or she may be from, what do you think you’d see? Would they want you to speak to them as an outsider, or as an equal? Think about it. I can say from my own experience that when I’m talking to someone here, I want that person to speak only one language: Azerbaijani. That’s where we are. That’s the language I spent several months learning. End of story. If you wanna honor a guest, make him your equal, and not a spectacle.

A.B.L.E. Camp

Before summer’s over, I think I’ll have eaten upwards to fifty “yard pears” from my landlord’s property. In July, he and his family began shaking them off the trees and picking them off the ground, and a hefty batch is strewn in a pile on the floor in my refrigerator room (That’s the room with the refrigerator in it.). The pears are kinna tough, but if you put them in the freezer for about twenty minutes (Thank you, Jesse, for teaching me this trick.), they turn perfectly soft and delicious.

But is that what I’m really talking about here? No, not at all. Truth is I feel like I’m in the “eye” of the summer at the moment, as the storm of camps and whatnot have died down, and I’m free to pretty much spend my day as I please. I kinna wanted to get up early today and go hiking, but I decided, after watching Fracture last night, with Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling, that I’d sleep in today. Good decision? That’s debatable, but it was raining this morning, so it wouldn’t’ve been the prettiest hike even if I’d gone.

I am happy, however, for the cooler weather due to the rain. Now, Oğuz isn’t the hottest rayon, but the afternoons can still get pretty steamy in August, so not only do I get to write to you all, but I also get to do it in a more comfortable setting. Not a bad deal, I’d say.

But I’ve been slacking. One of the best things I’ve experienced happened earlier this month, and I haven’t told y’all about it yet. It’s Azerbaijani Boys’ Leadership Experience (A.B.L.E.) camp, and it’s something we plan for all year. Really, it’s many volunteers’ favorite project here in Azerbaijan, and with good reason. In no other place are you in such good company. Let me tell you about it.
Basically, throughout the year, we select, from our respective rayons, promising young men who would benefit from attending a five-day leadership camp. They usually range from ages twelve to seventeen or so. After a lot of fund raising and planning, we bring these young people together at a campsite in Ismayıllı Rayon, which is a real spectacle. Azerbaijani culture doesn’t lend itself much to going to different rayons and getting to know people who aren’t your relatives or classmates. And although it’s a little weird for these boys from all over the country to mix and mingle at first, it really is interesting to see them all together. They’re the cream of the crop, the boys you see in class who’re always raising their hands (Charlie pointed that one out.). It’s wonderful to be around fellows like these, especially when, on a daily basis, you tend to deal with boys who…aren’t such great company.

And seeing them in a totally new environment, away from their parents and daytime T.V., is reassuring for me. It gives them a chance to be themselves, to just be around other boys like them, free of life’s daily distractions, and the purpose of the camp lends to that even more.

With the help of F.L.E.X. alumni (F.L.E.X. is a program for free high school study in the United States.), we structure each day so that the kids get a little taste of everything. In the mornings, we have lessons about community, leadership, service, teamwork, etc. In the afternoons, we have guest speakers come and talk to the boys about any of a number of things, like the environment, creativity, gender issues, etc. And among these more serious activities, we also play plenty of games and enjoy each other’s company at meals and a few bonfires.

Really, it just takes these boys out of the box. I mean, camp stuff like this is commonplace in America. Chances are most of the folks reading this entry have been to camp, where you play sports, eat s’mores, and talk about leadership. But that ain’t on the daily agenda for these boys, whose days are structured around school, afternoon tutoring, and watching T.V., as far as I can tell. And some take to it better than others, I must admit. Some get right in the thick of things and make new friends right away, and others hang out on the fringes, taking a little time to get into it. But in that case, I’d say they’re like young men just about anywhere. Camp brings those qualities out and helps people discover new ones. It’s a beautiful site. It affected me too, as I hadn’t been in an environment like that since Camp Deerwood in New Hampshire and St. Stephen’s Family Camp at Mustang Island. I enjoyed it fully.

Hopefully this project’ll continue as long as Peace Corps stays in Azerbaijan. It’s a goodun.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

We've gotten used to you.

Now, you see, I have Internet in my little abode, which’ll make writing web log entries more convenient, or I’ll at least be able to upload them as soon as I write them. Oh joy.

But I must admit I’m not entirely pleased with the purchase my parents so kindly made for me when we were in Baku together. They were, of course, generous to buy the Azercell DataKart, to make my Internetting easier, seeing as every time I needed to send an email or upload a file, I had to hitchhike to Oğuz, a real crapshoot of a task that could take as long as an hour each way. Yeah, I know, I’m a crybaby, but now I can be…eh…more productive in the comfort of my own “həyət evi” (“yard house”).

But I was expressing my dissatisfaction, see. With regards to the hardware itself, it works fine. You plug it in a U.S.B. port, connect, and you’re on the Web. However, I was informed, as I was putting cash on the “kart” in Zaqatala, that “pul çox gedir” (“Money goes fast.”). Wonderful. So, exactly how fast? Well, judging by my Internet connection records, I burned through ten Manat after about six and a half hours of Internetting. That’s about a Manat fifty per hour. What the f%*#!! Seriously? I can use a computer at an Internet club in Oğuz for forty qəpik an hour. Not only that, but the equipment itself was fifty-nine Manat. Oh, those corporations and their crooked games. Clearly they’ve learned that us consumers are too awed by their flashy bells and whistles to take into account how this will effect our two fifty monthly allowance.

Nonetheless, I’m still happy I have this thing. It saves me the trip if I wanna send a quick email, look up an idea for lesson planning, check out a news story, or upload a web log entry.

Of course, that has nothing to do with this entry’s topic. Nope, I just wanna review a funny line I heard from an old teacher in Qumlaq. Her name’s Cahanə Müəllimə, and she teaches…something. A unique characteristic of this “müəllim” is that she drives a car. Now, female drivers are commonplace in richy rich Baku, with plenty of shade-sporting ladies cruising along the Caspian in their S.U.V.’s, but in the rayons, like Oğuz, pretty much only dudes drive. That’s why I get a kick out of this elderly woman puttering around the rayon in her red Lada. It isn’t like she’s a trendy young dame, pushing the limits by wearing stylish clothes and borrowing Dad’s Mercedes every now and then. This woman wears ankle-length dresses and headscarves, and judging by her passengers, you’d assume she’s driving her closest friends to the next bridge game. Life is full of things that make you smile.

So I was walking down the Qumlaq road one day, like I always do on my way to Oğuz, hoping a car would come by, and Cahanə Müəllimə came by and picked me up in her red Lada (whose design, by the way, hasn’t changed since 1974). A friend or relative was in the back seat, and they were also heading to Oğuz.

I sat next to Cahanə Müəllimə and had a pretty casual conversation: “How’s it going?” “What’re you up to?” “When’re you leaving for America?” “How’s Azerbaijan treating you?” Then she asked, in her nearly gone voice, something about Qumlaq and how I found the people, and I responded that I liked them, of course. Then she told me, “Well, we’ve gotten used to you.”

I kind of laughed at that response and didn’t think about it much until later. What exactly does it mean to “get used to someone”? I mean, I must admit, I’m sure the Qumlaqians had to shift their weight around a little to get used to me, the weird dresser, the runner, the coffee-drinker, the walker-to-towner (though I don’t really do that anymore, due to high river water levels.), the backpack wearer. I’m not sure how many outsiders these folks’ve gotten to know. Around Qumlaq, at least, Azerbaijani is pretty much what you get, a united “millət” (“nationality”), a people who drink çay and who all know the latest on the Turkish soap operas, who enjoy sunflower seeds and watching musicians play their national music on a grassy knoll in Qazax. Yeah, these folks’ve gotten used to the American.

Now, I mean, it may seem like an unnecessary adjustment. Why should they have to “get used to” me, like Cahanə Müəllimə said? I’m just here to help. I just want some respect and a comfortable house. You don’t need to bend over backwards.

But what about the folks who don’t get it? Any volunteer knows what I’m talking about. The dudes who yell ugly words at you on the street, who are so unfamiliar that they stare. My own mother felt conspicuous in Sheki, where grown men peered at her from the fronts of markets, clearly not used to what they saw.

The hardest thing for me at the beginning of service was trying to explain myself, in my broken Azerbaijani, to people who clearly didn’t understand me. I didn’t know if they liked me or not. It kept me up at night, even. “What if I leave, and they speak badly of me?” I thought. It was hard to bare, until, of course, I got used to them, and they did likewise, as this older teacher assured me. I guess it was a two-sided deal. You adjust. I adjust. If any party doesn’t do so, Peace Corps doesn’t work.

But aside from Peace Corps, how many times have you had an ugly encounter with folks who didn’t “get it”, from people ignorant to you and your needs, who didn’t understand you and where you came from? How ‘bout the other way around? You ever look back on a time when you alienated an outsider, refused to let him in? We all might be a little guilty, and that’s what’s made this experience so important. I never really knew what it was like.