Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

It seems I haven't posted in a while. We'll fix that, believe you me, but in the meantime, I'm going to leave y'all with a short and hopefully sweet "Season's Greetings". Or should I even say "Season's Greetings"? Is that legit? My buddy Charlie tells me it's a generic phrase made up my Hallmark (no offense to Hallmark. I like their cards) or the like. Perhaps I should just stick with "Merry Christmas". I mean, Charlie did go to Kenyon, so he must be good with words.

Okay, here goes: Merry Christmas! I hope it's a blessed one!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Leaving Your Hat On A Marshrutka

What. This has never happened to you?

Okay, while it’s fresh on my mind, let me recount what “went down” after I stepped off the marshrutka in Ceyranbatan, although the title might’ve given it away. Whatever.

Hold on. Perhaps I should give you the “low down” on what a “marshrutka” is. There’s a chance you’ve never heard of such a thing.

Marshrutkas are some of the greatest things ever.

Wait. That wasn’t good enough? Okay, I’ll describe them in more detail.

“Marshrutka” means “minibus”. Perhaps you’re getting a decent mental image now, but let me tell you. It’s more than just that. They’re inexpensive, speedy, van-like vehicles that transport folks from one place to another. It might be to the next town, within the town, or across rayons of Azerbaijan. They’re about as convenient as you can get, and who can argue with a four-hour ride for seven fifty (That’s in dollars.)? In the states, a ride that long could cost thirty on the Greyhound, or maybe more. Needless to say, I’m a fan.

So what did happen as I dismounted the marshrut (That’s the shortened, casual form of the word.) in Ceyranbatan (Just pretend the title of the entry is something else.)? Well, I left my sweet, blue, Rocky style (as Shep would describe) cap in the freakin’ vehicle, and I, of course, realized it as it was driving away.

So…what did I do? I ran. Then I ran some more.

I thought the marshrut made its final stop just up the road. It didn’t. It just kept rolling along, and I just kept a runnin’ down the road in the dark. The marshrut would stop for a second. I would catch up a little. Then it would keep going again. I’m sure the local folk were wondering what this white dude was doing running down the road in his corduroy jacket and scarf. I mean, Hell, they’re curious enough when you’re running in athletic gear. I almost tripped and fell at one point, too. It was one of those “almost trips” when your foot kicks back suddenly due to a groove or something on the path. Then your friend says something like, “Whoa! Better watch your step there!” or something smart-alecky like that, which just pisses you off more.

Eventually, I realized, with the size of the town being what it is, the marshrut would just loop around, so I ran back the other way, and, lo and behold, it showed up. I got on the marshrut, again, and fetched the hat. No problemo.

Okay, why the heck am I writing this? I mean, am I the only person who’s ever left his hat somewhere? Surely not. Maybe this is just a piece of advice to the kinds of people that leave stuff (You know who you are.). If your hat happens to have been left on a marshrutka, run after it. Don’t just stand there. Hold on. Scratch that. Okay…if your hat happens to have been left on a marshrutka, stand there. Don’t run after it. Just wait ‘till it comes back.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Military Service

Here’s something you hear about all the time. Back in the U.S., many, many people join the ranks and serve the country, sacrificing a lot but gaining a lot as well. What would it be like, however, if everyone had to serve?

Well, in Azerbaijan, that’s not the case either, but just about every male serves in the military for a couple years. I learned a little about military service one day as I was walking down the road with my friends in Ceyranbatan.

My host family just so happened to be riding in a relative’s car, and they stopped and yelled for me to join them. No wasn’t an option. So we jetted out of town towards Baku, and I wasn’t sure where the heck we were going. Let me also add that at this time, I could speak barely any Azerbaijani, but I did have my dictionary. My host dad took it and flipped through the pages. He eventually said, “military service.” In Azerbaijani, the word is “əsgərlik”. That didn’t help me too much, though. You begin to think weird things when you’re riding in a car, you don’t know where you’re going, and somebody tells you “military service”. Oh well, what the heck was I going to do? Jump out?

So we arrived at our destination. As I could’ve expected, it was a military post. We got out of the car and greeted Elhan, my oldest host brother, whom I’d never met. Ah, I got it now. We were just visiting Elhan. We walked into the mess hall and sat down. Unfortunately, the electricity was out, so we sat in the dark and chatted with him. I, however, did more listening than chatting.

Whatever the case, it was interesting to observe. Elhan’s about twenty years old, three years younger than I am. No doubt military service ain’t a picnic, and here was this man, sitting in the dark, talking with the folks from home. It can’t be easy, but he seemed to have a good attitude.

I’ve wondered why countries have required military service. I imagine it’s to ensure the country’s protection, but I can see there being an advantage for those doing the service. It seems to me that if there was one way to jump-start a person into manhood, it would be this. If I had done military service before college and all that, there’s a chance I would’ve been a stronger, more mature man. I mean, it’s not a guarantee, but there’s a chance. It would’ve also been good to know that I was needed in my country, regardless of what came out of my service, although that doesn’t make me or anyone else exempt from making his/herself counted.

Su yox

Few things irritate you more than approaching the sink, turning the knob, hearing a slight suction/gurgling sound, and seeing no water flow from the spout. Dang, Man, I was really looking forward to washing my hands / taking a shower / cleaning the dishes (although I don’t do much of that in this house) / having a drink of water / etc. / etc. You also can’t help but get perturbed when your sweetheart host mother looks at you and says, “Su yox!” (“no water!”). What do you mean we don’t have water? And why don’t we have water? And when are we going to get the water back? These are the thoughts that enter your head when you’re in this situation, and they aren’t completely unjustified.

But then you have to think a little bit. First, it’s not your host mother’s fault. It’s not like she called the water company (or whoever’s in control) and said, “Eh, we just don’t feel like water today.” Secondly, let’s get real here. At least we have running water. Drinkable running water is there pretty much all the time, and that cannot be said everywhere. I thought of that as I was on my way to the school this morning and saw people filling up large receptacles with water. Okay, so they had to go and fetch the agua from there instead of turning the knob at the sink in their homes, but in several places that’s every day, whether they like it or not. I once heard from a woman who lived in the Gambia that, in the place where she was living, the water would be delivered. It could be anytime, day or night, and the people would have to come out and get their water that way.

Alright, look. I ain’t no bleeding heart lecturing martyr. I like my hot water. I like my glass of H20. I like my instant coffee. But it’s important to remember that water doesn’t just come from nowhere. Making the water hot isn’t always as simple as turning the knob. What we need isn’t always at our fingertips, and, well, there’s just no harm in knowing that.

The Amazing Electric Box

If there’s anything that’ll make you feel like you’re in a vintage science fiction movie, it’s this little (or, should I say, not so little) mechanism in which I plug my electronics. Yes, it’s true. We’re advised to use one of these “voltage regulators” if we value our laptop computers. Seeing as I got mine the summer of two thousand six, I’d prefer to hold onto it for a while, and unless I’d prefer it get fried by a less-than-even electric current, I was recommended to utilize this contraption.

However, would others agree when I say it might not be necessary? Don’t get me wrong. People use surge protectors and the like all the time, but just look at this thing. It costs thirty-five manat. That’s roughly forty-three dollars and seventy-five cents. Not chump change, especially on my salary, or whatever it is we receive as payment. Let me also add that Josh Weil, an administrator, told us at a hub day that these machines could very well be superfluous expenditures. Now, granted, he’s the one dishing us our money regularly, but we won’t hold that against him.

Oh, right, and don’t let me forget this. My laptop holds a charge for about, oh, forty minutes now. Oh, how fantastic. I’m glad it’s been in good hands. That’s not to say explicitly that the regulator I bought has failed, but, hmm, there’s a chance. And if that chance just so happens to be true, then what the Hell is this clunky contraption doing on my floor with my computer plugged into it (as I type this, might I add)? If this thing actually hasn’t protected my computer from harm, then it would better serve as a doorstop, or booster chair, or one of those blocky things short people use to reach the urinal.

Alright, I will now shove all bitterness aside. Whatever the case, I’m still unsure of this thing’s effectiveness, and instead of pointing a finger and throwing the regulator out the window, I will hold onto it for the duration of my service. Rather than scoff at its large size and weight (And, really, why is this thing so heavy? What’s going on in there?), I will embrace the blockyness and accept it as, if anything, a novelty of my Azerbaijan experience. I mean, really, what’s a few extra pounds when you can add some fun to the mix…and perhaps protect your computer as well?

Monday, December 1, 2008

A.T.M. Machines

Okay, folks, as I sit here again in the Internet café, I wanted to write a quick note about something I experienced, in its fullest form, just a little bit ago.

Yes, anyone who has been serving in the Peace Corps in Azerbaijan knows what I’m talking about when I create a web log entry with the title “A.T.M. Machines”. It’s an experience just about any time you approach an International Bank of Azerbaijan A.T.M.

You see, many folks in Azerbaijan have a different style when it comes to these fancy machines. Anyone with a checking account in the United States has become accustomed to the “wait in line for your turn” method. I mean, it works okay, but why do that when you can swarm the machine, crowding around the civilian who’s taken on the role of “operator”, so you can hand him/her your card and he/she can do it for you? Oh yeah, let’s not forget that if, for some reason, you’ve brought multiple cards with you, you can stand there as said operator punches in your PIN number and withdraws your desired amount of cash. Honestly, it was really something to stand within the cluster and watch A.T.M. cards get passed up to a lady who was doin’ the withdrawin’ for folks standing by.

Okay, let me back up a little. This is not a criticism of how A.T.M. machine etiquette works in Azerbaijan. I mean, heck, as long as you get your money, it’s cool, and let me also mention that I don’t hand up my card like others do. I don’t take it that far. I just wait my turn, whenever that is.

It’s really just interesting to see how people deal with certain kinds of technology in different cultures. You’d think things simply follow a set standard, but then you get surprised. Truth be told, a lot of Azerbaijanis receive pension money, and there’s a chance many of them have never operated an A.T.M. before. I guess they figure a more communal technique to pulling out cash is perfectly fine, and I can’t blame them. I mean, what if you all the sudden had a bank account and an A.T.M. machine dropped into your town? You’d have to figure it out, and, for them, this is what works. I’ll just try and not approach the automated teller machine on pension day.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sağ olun

You will hear this phrase a billion times (and then some) in Azerbaijan. Sağ olun (or, more commonly, sağ ol) literally means ‘be healthy.’ It also means ‘thank you’ and ‘good-bye.’ Oh yeah, and it’s also what you say before you take a drink with friends. It’s a phrase with various meanings, and I’ve given it a bit of thought.

Why, you may ask? Well, it actually dates back some time ago, a couple months, give or take. My buddy Charlie who lives down the street just so happened to be locked out of his house (by the grandmother, who was in the house. We won’t delve into that subject here.), so we walked together down to my host family’s house, opened the heavy, metal gate, and walked onto the front patio to see my host dad and mom firing up the wood grill. They looked at us and said, “kabobs!” I can’t say I was disappointed, and neither could Charlie. So we sent a text message or two to our friends in our cluster, telling then we probably wouldn’t be able to get together for a movie that night, and kicked back for a tasty meal.

And a tasty meal it was. They grilled the meat mighty fine, set up the table outside, since the weather was nice, put out the plates, vodka, and whatnot, and Charlie and I spent time jacking around on the patio with Maharab and Nerman. It was delicious, quality time spent with Charlie and the host family. Heck, Our cross-the-street neighbor Abdullah even showed up, no big deal.

Anyway, as we enjoyed a fun night at the house, and we clearly had limited language skills, one of the things we could say was ‘sağ ol,’ especially as we were taking another drink of vodka. We would say it in thanksgiving to my host family, and eventually Charlie would say it as he walked out the door to his house. It has a few meanings, but I find it interesting that the same phrase for ‘good-bye’ is the same phrase for ‘thank you.’ Would you say that has any bearing on the culture? I would dare to say yes, because it seems like, when one enters a home, chances are he should not only say ‘good-bye’ but also ‘thank you,’ because it’s important to treat a guest very well in this country, and how convenient it is that there is one phrase that includes both.

And I don’t just pinpoint Azerbaijan in making this analysis, either. I was raised by parents who also take hospitality seriously. I used to wonder why the heck we needed to wash the sheets and all that before a guest entered our home. It seemed unnecessary, but little things like that: making sure they have a nice place to sleep, food to eat (whether they’re hungry or not), something to drink, heck, maybe even a shower to use, these things don’t just happen when someone enters a home. It takes effort on the part of the hosts, and, to me, the fact that one can say ‘good-bye’ and ‘thank-you’ at the same time makes all the sense.

The American National Dish

Can somebody please tell me what the heck this is?

Yes, regrettably it’s true. We Peace Corps folk in Azerbaijan are frequently asked this question. It’s nothing against the local crowd that asks it. They’re curious, and, frankly, they’re also from a much smaller country with distinctive (and tasty) national dishes.

However, when an American is confronted with such a question, he can be stumped. Now, I can say that when I was asked this question (more than once in a day) at my future school in Qumlaq, what first came to my mind was a hamburger and fries, so I explained that. It seemed to be pretty standard, but how often do you really eat that back in the States? I mean, I love it, don’t get me wrong, but if you’re eating a juicy burger and fried taters on a regular basis, you’re setting yourself up for problems down the road.

So, was I fair in telling these students that the national dish of the United States of America is a hamburger and French fries? My answer now is no. What I should’ve said was that the United States doesn’t have a national dish. It’s not feasible to pick one national meal from one of the world’s most diverse countries, not to mention the fact that it contains about three hundred million people.

When one heads off and does something like Peace Corps in another country, an image of the United States is not only what you give them, but it’s what they give you. Now, what in tarnation does that mean? It means there’s a good chance a particular vision of the United States and what it is like will already be instilled in some people’s heads before you arrive. You show up in a community, perhaps as the first U.S. citizen these folks have ever seen, and you have an Asian background. What? Wait, that’s not supposed to happen. We ordered an American, not an Asian. Well, it turns out the United States has people of Asian ancestry. Go figure. In fact, while many, many people in the U.S. are eating hamburgers on a given day, several others are eating kung pow chicken.

To be honest, I feel for the wonderful people in Azerbaijan that receive us every year. It might not be pleasant to receive what you did not expect, but how cool is it that we get to expose the rich facets of our great country? While they educate us, we educate them. How great is that?

I still stand by my fondness for burgers and fries, by the way.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

My Future Home

Hello, everyone! It’s been a little while since I’ve written in the ol’ web log, and I find this to be a pretty opportune time to give an update.

At this moment, I’m not typing, but, instead, I’m writing in a composition book (I’ll type it later, but that’s obvious, right?). My computer’s not with me because I’m on a three-day visit at the village in Azerbaijan where I’ll do my volunteer service! That’s pretty exciting, eh? I will be serving in a “rayon” of Azerbaijan called Oğuz. Let me give you the description of the rayon that the Peace Corps provided me (To be honest, it’ll be the first time I’ve read the description in it’s entirety as well.).

“Oghuz region was established as Vartashen on Augurst [August] 8, 1930. Vartashen had been the center of the region till 1961. It was established the status of the city type settlement from 1961-1968 and the status of a city in 1969. At the first session of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Azerbaijan in February of 1991 the region was renamed into Oghuz and Vardanly village into Kerimli. Oghuz is a region with ancient and rich history. The book of geography composed of 17 volumes and written by Greek historian Strabon who lived in the 1st century B.C. provided the full coverage of the Caucasus Albania and showed that the Sheki-Zagatala zone that include[s] of [the] region of Oghuz was the place of the [a] dense settlement of people 20-25 centuries ago (that is 2500 years ago [Thank you, Peace Corps, for clearing that up.]). Prominent archeologist[s], coming from Oghuz Saleh Gaziyev proved by the patterns of material culture discovered during the researches on the territory of the region in 1956-1959 that the people lived in collectives on this area in the Neolithic Era (that is 6-7 thousand years ago). Saleh Gaziyev conducted the archeological researches south of the Vardanly (present Kerimli) and Garabaldyr villages in 1948 and discovered ancient settlements and cemeteries. The ancient scientist discovered the following material culture patterns related to the period 2500-3000 years ago in the monuments of Dash gutu (stone box): a bronze knife, lance point, bashlyks [Don’t ask me what those are.], different jewelries (belt, bracelet, ring, pearls and others), ceramic patterns, and others. Some of them have a history of 500 years. The ancient graves of the unknown age belonging to the Oghuz tribes mentioned in the epos Kitabi dede Gorgut [?] and differing from other modern graves with their length are still preserved in the north of Filfilli and Bash Dashaghyl villages of the region. The ancient necropolises of the Kerimli, Garabaldyr, [and] Djalud villages and Oghuz city, the GKhachmaz Govur tower of the 7th century, the Mukhakh tower constructed in the 9th century, the Albanian temple of the early Middle Ages of Oghuz and Djalud villages also provide information of the past of the region. The names Vartashen, Oghuz, Maza, Vengey, Padar, Sazur, Shahra and other toponymies [whatever those are] date back to 12-14 thousand years ago to the times of Avesta and prove the area of the region to be part of Zardush.”

Ha ha. It appears to be a translation from Azerbaijani, and it can be hard to decipher certain words and whatnot. But you get the gist of the history and all that, right?

I can honestly say that I almost feel like I’m in another country. It’s amazing how, in this small nation, there exists such diversity. Some time ago, I visited the rayon of Ismayilli, which is on the way to Oğuz. Clearly I observed a similar geographical change on my way to Oğuz as I experienced on my way to Ismayilli. The elevation and general environment change drastically. The area of Sumgait, for the most part, is flat and not too green, but Oğuz is almost something out of a fairy tale. It’s beautiful, with mountains and rivers all around. According to my host dad, tourists come here in the summertime (Not too many come in the wintertime, though, if I had to guess.).

Culturally, it appears to be different as well, but that also may have something to do with this particular village where I will be serving (which is called Qumlaq, by the way. I probably should have mentioned that earlier.). Nonetheless, I’ve noticed a change, however slight it may be, in how folks dress, how the teachers interact with the students, how a girl interacts with a boy (Believe me. You would notice, too.), etc. Of course, it’s hard to have a firm grip after being here for just a couple days. I shouldn’t worry, though. I have plenty of time left to do that.

Qumlaq has a small, friendly school, and I’m grateful for that. It has about three hundred twenty-three students and forty-eight teachers. The class bell is literally a bell rung by hand outside that bears some resemblance to what you’d hear on the old family farm when dinner’s ready.

My future host family here in Qumlaq consists of a mom (Aybəniz), dad (Fedya), daughter (Hökümə), and son (Rustam). The daughter is about fourteen and the son is about eight (I should double check these ages (and their names)). The father is firm is his Muslim faith, which is wonderful. He doesn’t drink or smoke, and it was something to hear his chanting this morning…and afternoon. They also live on a beautiful piece of property. When I asked Fedya what he did for a living, he simply said that the home provides what the family needs. They live on a farm, fully equipped with chickens, turkeys, cows, sheep, hazelnuts, pecans, fruit, and whatever else. Aybəniz works somewhere, but I’m not exactly sure what that is at this point.

Anyway, this is, so far, a glimpse of what’s to come. It’s nice in that I now have an idea of what these two years of service will be like. I also think I speak for other trainees when I say that I look forward to actually starting the two years of service that haven’t even begun.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Toy – Part Two

Alright, so we’ve gone over the first kind of toy pretty well, I’d say. Sounds like a big, fun party, eh? But, little did I know that there’s another toy that’s also quite common. The party’s quite similar, but it celebrates something different.

Various cultures have festivities for when a boy becomes a man. In the United States, the most common occasion I can think of is a Barmitzfah, when a young Jewish person’s coming into adulthood is celebrated. This type of event is also quite common in Azerbaijan. It’s the ‘kiçik toy (sorry if this is incorrect)’, roughly translated as ‘toy for a young person.’

One of the first explanations I received on this type of toy was from my host brother, who put it bluntly. The usual gestures for a toy were given, like moving the arms in a dancing motion, but he also formed one of his hands in the shape of a scissors and made like he was cutting the end of one of his fingers on the other hand. Getting the picture? If not, I, too, will put it bluntly, and inform you that a ‘kiçik toy’ is when a young man is circumcised.

The only gesture I remember giving in return was a cringe and an, “Oooohhhh!” signifying the pain it must cause. My buddy Jordyn has also been to one of these, and he told me it more or less goes like this: The young man is the king of the party. It’s his day. The festivities commence like a regular toy, with the food, dancing, speeches from friends and family at the front of the room with the microphone (I might not have mentioned that yet.), vodka, etc. The boy sits at the front of the big room on a stage. When all’s said and done at the party, he eventually goes home, where the doctor applies an anesthetic of some sort and the snipping takes place.

Now let’s reflect here. What if you were in this position? What would be going through your head during this big bash, knowing your circumcision would follow? I went to my neighbor’s toy, and he’s around five or six years old. As far as I could tell, he was perfectly happy. However, Jordyn informed me that the boy at the toy he attended didn’t look too happy. I guess it just varies from person to person.

Nevertheless, I think this is a pretty cool occasion. How great is it that friends and family all come together to celebrate a boy becoming a man. I believe that’s an important thing to recognize, and, as far as my own case goes, it would have been nice for someone to formally let me know when I was no longer a boy. Ha ha, just kidding. Of course, I think many (if not all) would agree that Abdullah (the boy whose toy I attended) still has plenty of childhood left, but he has still, in fact, reached a pertinent stage in his life. The following day, I visited him at his house across the road from mine. He was lying in bed as the party was going on outside. He, of course, had plenty of love and attention, and I gave him a little money (also a tradition). Later that day, a couple Peace Corps Trainees and I came to the house, and we were warmly welcomed, as expected. There’s something great about seeing my friend Charlie kneel down and visit with his neighborhood friend at his bedside. It makes me feel even more like we are part of the community.

Toy – Part One

Okay, before I explain why I’m giving this entry that particular name, I want you to ponder for a moment what a ‘toy’ is.

Finished? Alright, well, in Azerbaijani, a ‘toy’ can be a couple things. Two, by my count. If you look in your handy Azerbaijani-to-English dictionary, a ‘toy’ is defined as a wedding. Ah, I see. A wedding. What a cool name for a wedding.

But let me get something straight here. In Azerbaijan, a toy isn’t merely a wedding ceremony one goes to every now and then when a friend or relative gets married, followed by a reception. Oh, no. A toy is a party. A rowdy party. A party Azerbaijanis love to attend. And they happen all the time. Seriously, all the time. Now, remember, a toy can celebrate a couple things, but I will concentrate on the ‘bride and groom’ toy first.

So my host family said one day, earlier in training, “Let’s go to a toy in a few days.” Wait. It wasn’t quite like that. It was more like, “In a few days, we’re going to a toy.” They were excited, and I’d already heard at that point that toys were essential events one must experience in Azerbaijan. So I put on my Sunday best and went.

I guess I expected it, but we didn’t go to the actual ceremony. We went to the party. Everyone wants to go to the party. We walked into the reception hall in Sumgait, which was already pretty full, and took a seat at one of the tables. Food and shots of vodka were being served all around (except the vodka wasn’t served to the ladies), and the bride and groom sat there, on an elevated surface at the front of the room, in all their glory. They had a nice border decoration surrounding them, and they looked dignified. To be honest with you, I’d say the folks below, merrily eating, drinking, and dancing, were having more fun than the newly married. I suppose that, as a bride and groom, you are more like the hosts of the toy, while your friends and family are the ones invited and welcome to carouse in raucous merriment. I’d say that’s a good reason to want to go to one of these events.

Anyway, I went along with the crowd, and as you could guess, plenty of folks were delighted to have a foreigner join in on the fun. I sat at the end of the table and ate several platters of delicious Azerbaijani food, with several shots of vodka in between. I appreciate my host mother’s caution with my drinking, though. She would intermittently glance at me and tell me to keep it under control. This was a good thing, seeing as plenty of others were drinking more than they ought to.

Along with the eating and drinking was the dancing. Azerbaijani folk love to get the music going (especially with the zurna, a long horn instrument that makes a bagpipe-esque sound, and the sach (most likely spelled wrong), a lovely-sounding guitar-type instrument) and move their arms to and fro in dancing revelry. And when a white American comes into the picture, they welcome him with open, waving arms. I love the Azerbaijani dancing style. It’s not overly complicated, and I don’t make too much of a fool of myself when I do it. However, another component of the classic toy is a video camera. Somebody walks around the camera and films what’s going on, with a short-circuit connection to television screens all over the room. So, when the white dude decides to get up and dance, he becomes the camera magnet. My friend Laura, who was at the same wedding, took a picture of me on thee T.V. screen. wonderful.

One typical characteristic of a toy that I didn’t see was a fight. I can remember our Azerbaijani safety officer telling us that a fight can break out at a toy, I’m guessing due to the crowd of gentlemen imbibing great amounts and talking smack. Unfortunately, though, I wasn’t on the lookout when one occurred, although Laura told me there was a small scuffle.

All in all, a toy is a good time, and I’m glad to have experienced one. But what about that other kind of toy?

Sunday, October 26, 2008


A large portion of our training takes place here, the school, or məktəb (Remember how those ə’s are pronounced.). We’re fortunate enough, here in Ceyranbatan Two, to be in a pretty small community with a modestly sized school, and, to boot, it’s a pretty new school, from the looks of it. If you look around the building, you will see several signs saying “From the people of Japan”. That’s in English too, by the way. Thanks to Japan’s generosity, we have a nice facility.

Just about every day, except “Hub Days” and Sundays, we walk over to this building for our language lessons. They’re scheduled from nine to one in the afternoon. Now, as far as language lessons go, I have nothing to complain about. They’re what you’d expect. And there’s another thing I’m happy to not have to complain about, and that’s the students. Now, seeing as I may eventually be committed to two years of volunteering in a school, complaining about the students before I even teach them would probably be a bad sign. Nonetheless, I’m happy to say that the students at the school in Ceyranbatan Two are well behaved. That’s not the case everywhere. I’ve heard about students constantly opening and closing the trainees’ classroom doors, sliding notes under the doors, throwing rocks at trainees, etc. And, of course, there’re the constant “hellos” that trainees receive, iterated at an elevated volume, with the stress on the first syllable, so, as a trainee runs the gauntlet of children, he must withstand the onslaught of “HEllo,” “HEllo,” “HEllo” that comes his way. It’s cute at first, but only at first. None of these are encouraging factors of what lies ahead of us, but if I wanted an easy teaching job, I guess I would’ve gone…well…nowhere.

Our language lessons are taught by a gentleman named Qaymar (pronounced Guy•mar. In Azerbaijani, ‘q’ is pronounced like ‘g’.). He’s in his early twenties and has done his military service and worked on offshore oil sites. He’s about as friendly as they come. He almost always has a big smile going, and he also takes our language progress seriously. Our cluster is giving him some help, too. He recently asked us to help him with his writing because he wants to study in The United States. Charlie has already helped him outline an essay, and we hope the best for him.

Life at the school is good, and we hope to make more and more progress in our language before the end of training.

The Fam

This was a much-awaited moment for many of us, or, rather, all of us. Nothing says “exciting” like meeting the host family with whom you’ll be living for two and a half months, and all you can say is, “Hello,” “My name is John.” “What is your name?” “I have a brother.” “Do you have a brother?” “I want food.” On second thought, “exciting” might be the wrong word, but I can’t think of anything that fits the description just right.

In fact, as we were all sitting in the meeting hall at the Sheraton in Philadelphia, one of my final questions to a returned volunteer was, “How awkward is it going to be?” That question was followed by much laughter. Frank, the returned volunteer, even laughed a bit, and we all understood that it would be plenty awkward, which in itself is amusing.

As we all got on our respective buses (Some were marshrutkas, which will be explained another time.), it was as if we were cattle, wondering around like idiots, waiting to be carted off to be slaughtered. In fact, we’ve noticed thus far that the host family experience is much like being a large, two legged animal living in someone’s house. We wonder around with minimal communication skills, can barely iterate anything to our hosts, and wait to be fed. You can thank my buddy Charlie for that observation.

Whatever the case, we rolled along from the Aqua Park (wherever that was) to the area around the city of Sumgait. Sumgait will be our hub city for training (After that, God knows where we’ll go.). During training, the sixty-one of us will be divided into “clusters”. That is, small groups of us (about five, more or less) will be in various towns around Sumgait. My cluster is one of two that lives in Ceyranbatan (Pronouned Jay•rahn•bah•tahn. In Azerbaijani, c’s are pronounced like j’s.). We are Ceyranbatan Two, while Ceyranbatan One lives across the highway (which connects Sumgait with Baku, the capitol).

Anyway, one by one, each person that would be training in Ceyranbatan (One and Two) was dropped off at their host family’s house. It was fun to help the trainees with their luggage and see them off at their new homes. We have trainees with various living arrangements, from large, nice houses, to apartments.

My time eventually came. In fact, I think my house was the last one. We soon discovered, upon arrival at the house, that the “ana” (“mother” in Azerbaijani, pronounced “ah•nah”, with the stress on the final syllable) was not there, but it was okay, because she works at the school (not as a teacher, though. She lets people in the door and cleans around. I’m not sure of the job title.). She soon arrived and let me in. She showed me to my room, and as I unpacked my things (I was fortunate to be able to unpack my own things. That’s not the case in every household.), she offered me, as we all could guess, çay (pronounced “chai”, “tea” in Azerbaijani. This is a very important word.). I of course said yes, and she promptly brought me a pot ‘o çay with candy. It’s important to note that, in the Azerbaijani eating process, tea and candy come before the meal…and after…and maybe in the middle sometimes too.

And, as expected, she then offered me a meal. “Yemək” (yee•mach. The ‘ə’ is pronounced like the ‘a’ in “apple”. In almost all Azerbaijani words, by the way, the stress is on the last syllable.) she said, with her empty hand motioning toward her open mouth. I accepted again, and food was brought.

I took a break from unpacking and took a seat in my new room. As I was unpacking, a small table was moved from the middle of my room to the wall, and I sat there with my food and çay in front of me. It was a typical meal, soup with potatoes and chicken, with bread. My room is quite nice, about the same size as my room in The United States, with two pretty rugs covering the floor. For some reason, as I looked around and thought about this new arrangement, I began to feel emotional. In fact, I could easily have cried right then and there. Fatigue could have had something to do with it, and the fact that I had had plenty the night before.

As I was eating, my host mother came back into my room. She got on her knees in front of me, the way one does when they want to speak earnestly with someone, and we had a conversation. During orientation, part of the first few days of language training we had consisted of learning how to tell about your family back home. I understood why now, because she wanted to know. In my terrible Azerbaijani, I was able to say that I have a sister, brother, mom, and dad.

Soon after, she made it clear that I, the mysterious guest in her home, was now her son. That’s not to say she was stealing me from my American parents, but what’s important to note about our host family experiences in this country is that, as long as we’re in their houses, we are their children.

My host family consists of four people: Ata (“Dad,” I don’t remember what his name is.), Ana (Melahet), and two brothers, Nerman (12) and Maharab (17). These are some of the finest people I’ve ever known. Ata is a good man, works construction (as does Maharab). We’ve also had plenty of vodka together. Ana is one of the sweetest people I‘ve ever met. She loves to talk and teach me as much Azerbaijani as possible. Nerman is twelve and going to school, and he is also a fine young man. At any given time, he will make sure I have something to eat and çay to drink. Maharab is also a great guy. At seventeen, he is already working, although he is off to military service in about two months. I forgot to mention that I have a third host brother, Elhan, who’s currently doing his service.

I’m very pleased with the host family aspect of training thus far, and with good reason. They’ve been great.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Here is some useful information.

Mailing Address:

John Gahan, PCT
AZ 1000
Main P.O. Box 77
Peace Corps
Baku, Azerbaijan

This will be my mailing address until DECEMBER NINTH 2008.

Phone Number:

(051) 889-97-82

The country code for Azerbaijan is 994.


Well, well, it’s…eh…October seventeenth (Of course, that’s not what the actual web log says, because I’m writing this on my computer in my host family’s house and will copy and paste it onto “the internet” later.), and I’m getting around to my second web log entry. Like my last web log (which failed), I’m slacking big time on this one. HOWEVER, what’s important at this juncture is that I’m writing entry number two and not letting the burden of starting it hold me back. As for future entries, it’s up in the air.

Anyway, let’s go back a few weeks, to…oh boy…September…twenty-third? or thereabouts. I can’t remember. I guess we left Philadelphia on the twenty-third, meaning we arrived in Baku on the twenty-fourth. Right? We had a nice bus ride to J.F.K. Airport (which entailed The Sandlot, the most American movie we could find, and a cruise through Brooklyn). I couldn’t complain about our two flights with Lufthansa. How can you gripe about flight attendants back-peddling through your aisle after dinner with two bottles in their hands, saying, “More wine?”

We were tired nonetheless, but I perked up when we arrived in Baku. Folks from the Peace Corps welcomed us at the airport, including current volunteers. We were quickly given delicious sack lunches and herded onto buses, which would take us to a place of sheer joy, Aqua Park. I’ll get to that is a second.

It was dark outside, and I’d say most of us were too exhausted to deal with culture shock. For most of the bus ride, I stared outside, trying to make out what we were passing. What caught my eye the most were the oil pump jacks and what seemed like smoke coming out of the ground. It was mysterious, like we were heading into much unknown. It was true.

We got off the bus and were kindly reminded of how folks drive around the world when we crossed the street, but at this point, it was okay, because we were at the Aqua Park. Now, like I said before, we were pretty tuckered out, so our new surroundings (At least I don’t think.) didn’t hit us too hard. This point was reassured by the fact that our first few days would be spent at the Aqua Park. Wait. You don’t know what that is?

The Aqua Park is a hotel…somewhere. I’m not so sure where it is, but I do know that it’s pretty far from anything. It sits right by the Caspian Sea, and the rooms are pretty nice. It also has, like the name implies, an “aqua park,” with three big water slides, one of which ends in one of those giant toilet bowl type things, like they have (or had?) at Splashtown in Houston. That one wasn’t working, though. It also had a lower, kind of spooky amusement park area and a disco. Seems pretty Peace Corps-ish, eh? Whatever the case, could there be a better place to spend out first few days in country?

The first five or so days in Azerbaijan was our “orientation.” It allowed us to…well…orient. It consisted of meetings and whatnot from morning to night, touching on themes like language (important), being a successful volunteer, and aspects of Azerbaijani culture. We also got to go down water slides. All in all, I enjoyed orientation and spending a few more days with the people in “AZ6,” as we’re called. After orientation, it would be somewhat rare for us all to be together, and that brings us to September twenty-ninth, when we’d move in with our host families.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sheraton, Cheesesteak, and Not Being Involved with an Intelligence Agency

All of these things, and then some, help characterize my first couple days with Peace Corps. Let's start from when I packed, at around 8:30 the night before leaving home.

Let's get serious here. Number one, I've never been really on the ball about anything. Number two, I mean that about packing especially. I've come to the realization that analyzing the packing process far in advance, maybe even packing once, taking everything out, and packing again, isn't worth the time, at least for me. I wanted to enjoy my last moments at home, so I laid out my luggage the night before, went through the room, and packed what I would need.

However, I must admit that my parents and I thought it through ahead of time. I bought some new socks (a few pairs of which were given by my sister for my birthday. Thanks, Catherine Grace.), hiking boots (Tims, just 'cause I'm like that), running shoes, and maybe some other stuff I can't think of right now. I also talked it over with Mom and Dad and weeded out a few things and put some other things in, so, no, I'm not that much of a slacker.

Anyway, with my stuff packed up and a so-so attitude about what was coming (I mean, come on, who wouldn't have doubts the night before he leaves?), I got up at around five Saturday morning to roll out with Mom and Dad to the Austin airport to catch my flight to Philadelphia.

After landing and walking back and forth like an idiot outside baggage claim at the Philly airport, I finally figured out how to get the shuttle to the Sheraton (It sounds retarded, but...okay, maybe it is.) I wasn't feeling quite as stressed at this point, and the enthusiastic chatter of fellow volunteers on the shuttle eased my nerves even more.

We arrived at the hotel and completed and turned in some paperwork. We soon had our first meeting, all sixty-one of us (I couldn't believe it.). A great speech was given by the gentleman who would be conducting most of our meetings and activities, Kibala Wewegame (Sorry, Kibala, if I've misspelled your name.). He spoke with great passion and enthusiasm. You could tell that he meant what he was saying. For a man from Sri Lanka to speak so highly of Peace Corps and the United States really meant a lot to me.

Saturday and yesterday consisted of meetings that addressed several themes, from dealing with attention to Peace Corps policies (one of which is, yes, not being involved with an intelligence agency before joining. I'd only be so cool as to say I have.).

I must say I'm very pleased with our group of volunteers. We come from all over the United States and vary greatly in age. For many of the volunteers, I feel I'm almost looking in the mirror, while I really look up to many of them as well.

Last night was a final night of revelry before leaving the United States for some time. Wanting to enjoy the States one last time, I had a liberal amount of Yuengling Lager. It wasn't as much a desire as it was an obligation.

Staging's pretty much done at this point, and I'm due to be downstairs packed in twenty-seven minutes. Perhaps I should get on that. The next time I write. I'll be in Azerbaijan.