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.