Monday, December 28, 2009


27 December 2009

When life comes to mind, music comes to mind. Music is the glue that holds our sanity together, I’d say. My buddy Charlie talks about how putting the old i-Pod in his ears every now and then really calms him down. In fact, without it, he admits he goes a little crazy. I can see that. In this day and age, our lives take on an almost cinematic tone, with background music going along with our moods. When your girlfriend breaks up with you, what do you do? You throw on some Postal Service and sit there with your forehead against your desk, sadly contemplating where you went wrong. If you’re the type that walks around with headphones in his ears, what do you do on a sunny afternoon as you’re carelessly meandering about? You play that Chicago song about walking in the park on Saturday repeatedly, grinning from ear to ear as the music blissfully amplifies the situation. We move with music like a roller coaster, our hearts jumping out of our chests with excitement and heartbeats slowing down considerably as the ride eases up, giving us a warm, secure feeling. And then there’s all that space in between. No matter what the situation, there’s a song.

So it’s no wonder one of the striking features of a new culture is the music people listen to. Wherever it may be, people love their tunes, and Azerbaijan’s no exception. You can hear their traditional monster ballads blaring from a wedding palace on any given day, the typical ensemble consisting on the zurna (a long horn that makes a bagpipe-esque noise), sas (a sweet, light sounding guitar type thing), and some big ass drums. These instruments, combined with a high pitched male or female voice, come together swimmingly for your listening and wavy-arm-dancing delight, and in the wedding palace, it’s so loud that you sooner or later find yourself yelling to the person next to you, “Please pass me a napkin!” But, thankfully, you’ve had so much vodka by that point that you could care less if the napkin makes it to you or not.

I’ve gotten to the point, personally, where I dig the Azerbaijani music. If in the right context (A.K.A. not coming from a nineteen year old dude’s cell phone in a bus from Qəbələ to Şəki), it’s pretty enjoyable for me. Upon emerging from the bedroom after a good night’s sleep, if some traditional Azerbaijani music is going on the tube, I’m cool with it. It’s a good way to wake up and get in the I’m-in-Azerbaijan spirit, and I gotta say it’s great to regard the local arts that way. I mean, if I hated the music, that wouldn’t be cool because I, well, live here, and whether I like it or not, the music exists and it will enter my ears, even if I have earplugs made of titanium.

You might as well embrace these little things that make your experience complete.

Friday, December 25, 2009

It's Christmas again.

25 December 2009

This is John Hugh Gahan III, Azerbaijan Peace Corps volunteer, 2008-2010, wishing people of all faiths a Happy Christmas. And what exactly does Christmas mean for all of us out here in this little country sandwiched between Russia and Iran like the bacon in your club sandwich (except there’s no bacon here. crap.)?

Well, I can say we still take on that same holiday spirit we had before leaving our home countries. This kind of thing sticks with you, and we, of course, are also here to support and remind each other that Christmas is here and we’d better get in the mood. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. I mean, heck, if we so chose to, I can honestly say that my rayon mate Charlie and I could’ve passed December 25th like any other day and not given it a second though. Thankfully, that’s not what we’re doing.

Out here in this little country, folks are meeting at different places to celebrate together. Like last year, Charlie and I will be in Şəki with several other volunteers, and it’s gonna be a rompin’ good time. Şəki has a nice hotel with some good eatin’ we’ll hopefully enjoy, and I also anticipate some Secret Santa action. Whoever receives the salted peanuts, hazelnuts, and two Carlsberg brewskies from me is gonna be lucky, let me tell you.

Yep, it outta be fun, no matter where we are. Signing up for this commitment assumes you’re willing to spend times like this away from home, and that’s no problem. To be honest, it has its good side, for me at least, in that I get to reflect on such occasions and appreciate them more. Kinna cheesy, huh? Even so, it’s very true.

And let’s not forget the meaning of Christmas, laid out plain and clear to Charlie Brown by Linus after the third or fourth spontaneous dance party, which spans borders and cultures worldwide, from Catholics in Chile, to Pentecostals in Oklahoma, to Orthodox Christians in Russia, and Anglicans in Singapore, that gives light to everyone despite seemingly overwhelming darkness. You can be anywhere, and nothing can overcome the great gift that we remember on this lovely day.

So Merry Christmas everybody. Enjoy it without reservation.


23 December 2009

Ahhh…nothing like municipal election day. While Qumlaqians are at the school casting their votes, I’m in the quiet house, with only the roaring sound of my, no doubt, pre-Azerbaijani-independence radiator to distract me, and that’s really just a soothing noise that’ll hopefully put my mind at ease while I write to you.

The title of this entry tells it all. I’m a fan of coffee. It’s one of those American habits that I just haven’t given up while being away (except for Lent. But that’s different.).

Being a coffee drinker has brought attention here, simply because people really don’t care for it in this country. Perhaps they would if they gave it a chance, but they seem satisfied with the several glasses of tea they consume each day. No big deal.

It’s amazing how different you can make yourself look by doing things that people in America wouldn’t even bat an eye at. Let me give you an example. There’ve been at least a couple days in the however many months I’ve lived in Qumlaq in which I’ve carried a coffee cup with me and sipped it while walking to school. Though there’s nothing bad about doing that, it’s certainly not something anybody ever does around here, and, therefore, it caused several folks to give me a double take. I can remember one day last summer when my landlord’s little nephew, Famil, saw me with an empty cup in my hand and said, “Hey, look. He has a cup in his hand,” as if it was so strange. I suppose it was in his eyes. I’ve also had a boisterous older dude yell out at me as I passed him and his posse on the road, saying, “Where’s the coffee?” When you’re having a so-so day, that’s not so great to hear.

But let’s look at the other side of things. Some folks show positive interest in the lovely smelling, dark brown granules I mix with boiling water every so often. They’ll open the Nescafé container, breathe deeply, and ask, “Did this come from America?” I tell them no, and that I simply buy it from a market in town. The dude who works at the snack bar at the school asks me for some every time I bring it with me. Then there’s another teacher that takes one when it’s around. I mean, I’m not sure why, but, heck, who gives a damn? I tend to think these people may never’ve had a cup of java in their lives, but what do I care? I like it. Why can’t they? Another teacher that had a cup with me asked while we were in the teachers’ room, “Hey, John. How ‘bout we go have some coffee, eh?” Kinna like we were manly men, going off to do what manly men do. Just last night, while hanging out at a friends’ house, three members of the family, including the daughter, had some Joe after dinner.

Okay, none of this is very important. I didn’t even do anything, really, but perhaps I can take comfort in the fact that I may have “developed” Qumlaq to a certain degree. If not everybody speaks perfect English by the time I leave, perhaps they can at least give themselves the right to choose, while in a çayxana or the canteen, between coffee and tea. That’s democracy.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to mix up another mug of instant delight, because I choose to.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Play in the Dirty, Dirty South

21 December 2009

Hello, again. After a little absence, I’m getting back on the wagon to tell you about the trip I made this past weekend. It was a goodun’.

For some time, one of my old friends from our “cluster” in Ceyranbatan had been advertising a performance, in English, of The Wizard of Oz. This volunteer, Jordyn Ginnity, studied theater in high school and college and has had a drama club going on at his site for a while. Considering his expertise, I thought it’d be worth making the long trip to check out the play. Not only could I witness a creative endeavor for a T.E.F.L. volunteer, but I could also check out a part of the country I hadn’t seen.

So I set out at eight o’clock Saturday morning from Oğuz to hopefully make it to Neftçala, a rayon about three hours south of Baku, by three that day to see the play on time. The dispatcher at the Oğuz bus station recommended I take a Baku marşrutka from a town called Xaldon, where people catch a lot of rides going every which way. On the road from Xaldon to Baku, there’d be a place I could get off that would be a straight shot, more or less, to Neftçala.

I did just that, but, according to the marşrutka driver, I’d just have to ride all the way into Baku and catch a ride to Neftçala from there. Oh, well. So I arrived at the new Baku bus station, took an hour-long city bus across town, and finally got on a van bound for Neftçala. I ended up getting there at around six o’clock, a ten-hour trip, more or less. Thankfully, there’d be another performance the following day.

It was interesting to go from the Greater Caucasus, where I live, to the Really Flaticus, where Jordyn lives. It’s like you’re driving along the Gulf coast of Texas, except there aren’t as many F-150s on the road. There was a great deal more oil equipment to my left as we were traveling south, and despite what many would call a less aesthetically pleasing ride along the Caspian coast, I felt a sense of peace as the sun was going down. Maybe it was the change of scenery. I don’t know.

When I finally made it, Jordyn greeted me and took me to his host family’s house. He lives in a nice place with nice people, and, better yet, he and the fam were making pizza that night. You gotta admit it’s pretty cool to make pizza with your Azerbaijani host mom, not to mention one that really knows how to prepare the dough.

After a nice evening of good food and conversation, we eventually hit the sack and rose the next morning for breakfast and a tour of the rayon. We, however, were derailed upon arriving at School #3, where Jordyn serves, by some concerning news. Jordyn’s director told us that the director at School #1, where the play was being held, wouldn’t allow the performance to happen that day because there was supposed to be a meeting. This was alarming, considering it was written, in black and white, that the play was to be held for three days, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Despite what may be on your work agenda, you can’t just tell a hundred spectators there’ll be no play due to a “meeting”. So Jordyn and I walked over to School #1 to figure things out, and, like Jordyn’s director told us, School #1’s director insisted there couldn’t be a play that day. Considering what was agreed upon at the beginning, this pissed Jordyn off, and he and the director got into a verbal altercation, culminating in the director trying to physically throw Jordyn out of the school.

This didn’t make either of us happy, and I’d be damned if I was gonna travel ten hours and not see a play. We marched back to Jordyn’s school and assessed the situation with his director. We tried to figure out where we could have the play that day and decided we could have it in the School #3 auditorium, which was a bit more…rustic…than School #1’s auditorium.

However, School #1’s director called us back over, so we rolled up our sleeves and headed back there. He told us we could have the play, just as long as we’re out of there promptly and clean up after ourselves.

This was a huge relief, and Jordyn could pat himself on the back for standing up. Clearly he got through to the man. I got there an hour early so I could meet the actors and actresses. They were all nice kids and were excited about what they were doing, and with good reason. The play was very well done, with great costumes and scenery. It was also very entertaining, as it kept the one hundred some odd people’s attention. I was impressed with Jordyn’s direction and the students’ performance. You could see from how they acted that they were doing something unique that they were proud of, and that’s huge in our work.

It’s really lovely to be able to take kids off the beaten path a bit. Whether it be teaching English a different way to having them perform The Wizard of Oz, it’s great to see them shine in something they aren’t used to. It gives hope for all people.

I also got to hang out in the east Texas of Azerbaijan, and that’s pretty cool, too.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Guesting Teacher

This entry might be relevant for all you teachers out there…or…maybe really for anyone with a steady job. It’s about a change every now and then, and, hey, a little change never hurt anybody.

Anyway, what am I getting at here? Good question. I wanna reflect on something Dad told me years ago when I started working for AC&T, an oil company in Hagerstown. He told me it’s pretty easy to go to work on your first day. What counts, though, is getting up and going the next day, and the next, and so on, even when you don’t want to.

Seeing as Peace Corps is my first job out of college (We’ll leave out any complications and just say that Peace Corps is a job, okay?), this is really my first consistent, year-round commitment. It is my job. I must get up every school day and teach eighth, ninth, and tenth formers with my counterpart, and as I go about each day, my dad’s words reverberate in my head.

Let’s go back to January. The New Year’s holiday was over, and it was my first opportunity to stand in the front of the class in Qumlaq and teach the students. I remember that day so well. I had my snazzy new black coat on, and I gave an enthusiastic, entertaining lesson. It was fun.

Eventually January turned into February. February into March. So on and so forth. I mean, I love the kids, but, every day? Every day I gotta put together a decent lesson and make the kids learn. I gotta sit in the teachers’ room and be sociable. I gotta have patience when the students don’t understand or when they act out. Not only do I have to do this every day, but I gotta do it at the same, tiny school in Oğuz rayon, Azerbaijan.

That’s not a bad thing. Everyone’s got their responsibilities, their places in the world.

But we can flip to the other side and say that change ain’t bad either, right? I mean, c’mon. We’re Americans. We run on change. And by change I don’t necessarily mean dropping everything and seeking something radically different. It can simply mean a different look, flashing your eyes in another direction.

Charlie and I had a teachers’ meeting a couple weeks ago. It was a small group of teachers, mostly from villages, and it was a productive meeting. While there, I met a lovely young woman named Humay. She teaches in a village called Kərimli, just up the road from Qumlaq.

This lady was very nice and motivated, so I offered to visit her school. She enthusiastically said yes, and I got up the following Tuesday and headed to the village.

It’s a bigger community than Qumlaq, with a bigger school. Upon arriving, some students showed me to the teachers’ room, and I sat quietly and waited for Humay to get there. When she arrived, we headed to a sixth form class (ages eleven and twelve), full of bright-eyed students, and we had a great lesson. The kids were pumped to have a newcomer at school, and they tried their best. After class, they swarmed me and asked all kinds of questions. Like me, they were getting a new perspective.

It’s also good to see folks like this in our line of work. As we go about the daily grind, we can fall into labeling ourselves and our counterparts as “unmotivated”. That’s a matter of personal opinion. But it revives the soul to be with folks who are genuinely motivated and want to do well. Humay doesn’t have to try. She can simply come to school, throw some lessons from the text at the kids, and head home. Humay does her best, though, and that says a lot about her. It kept me in check. It kept me on the ball when it’s easy to get off.

What am I talking about? Am I just talking about a nifty visit to another school? Well, yeah, I’m talking about that, but I also wanna encourage anyone to take a different look at things. If you’re a university student, visit a class at another school. If you’re a churchgoer, go to a different one on a Sunday. Go somewhere you’ve never been. Visit someone you barely know. Use new dental floss. Shop at a different grocery store. Whatever you want. Even if you step out, disapprove, and step back in, you weren’t really hurt in the process, right? Give it a shot. It might jar something loose in you.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Pat's Son

3 October 2009

Hmmm…I guess with yesterday being my Dad’s birthday, this entry has more relevance.

First off, I’m sorry to have taken such a long hiatus from my web log. If I had a good excuse, I’d give it, but I don’t, so I’ll just keep typing and hope you forgive me.

I think I might’ve touched on the importance of family around here. Not that it isn’t important where I’m from, but something happened the other day that made me smile. Let me break it down to you.

It’s become my custom to hitchhike back and forth from Qumlaq to town. That’s proven to be the easiest mode of transportation. Typically if I’m walking down the road, waving at each car that goes by, somebody picks me up pretty quickly. Sometimes I gotta pay them; sometimes I don’t. It just depends on the driver. You may question the safety of hitchhiking, but I can assure you it’s less dangerous than crossing the river on the way to town that, since the rains of last spring, became considerably more “raging”. Besides falling one time and getting my pants wet, I resorted a few times to crossing that damn river by means of a gas pipe. It scared the heck out of me, so much that I decided to figure something else out. Hitchhiking was the answer.

So, anyway, one day I caught a ride on the last leg to Qumlaq with a good friend of mine. We happily greeted each other, and I was curious to see unfamiliar faces in the car. Not that I know everybody in town, but I suspected a full car heading into the village during the end of Ramadan probably meant relatives were visiting from out of town. The man in the front seat next to my friend looked quite “grandpa-ish”, and he was wondering who I was. My friend tried to tell him I was John from the States, but that didn’t register. After trying to explain who I was, my friend finally asked me, “What’s your dad’s name?” I said, “Pat,” and he told the man, “Alright, this is John. He’s Pat’s son.” Eventually, grandpa got the picture…I think…maybe.

Anywho, that’s pretty nifty, eh? Being known by who your dad is. And that’s how it works around here. In a tightly knit community like this, where so much is passed down from parents to children, it’s no surprise people are known that way. You don’t easily escape your family, and with good reason. Most everyone in Qumlaq wakes up in the morning and works the same land their parents worked. There isn’t much moving around, if any. What many have is what’s been given to them, and when that’s the case, who your dad is matters.

And, of course, if you’re off doing your thing, whether you’re American or Azerbaijani, there’s probably something that reminds you of Mom and Dad, something that sticks with you. Yeah, my friend has called me “Pat’s son” since that day, and it works. It suits me fine.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Azerbaijani Boys Leadership Experience

Hello everybody. I'd like to take a minute and share another project with you all with which I'm involved. It's called Azerbaijani Boys Leadership Experience (or A.B.L.E.) camp. It's an amazing project that has touched the lives of many young men all over the country. Volunteers serving in the rayons choose promising boys to participate in this six day camp, where they learn about leadership, democracy, and how to make a difference in their communities. Of course, the campers and counselors also have a lot of fun. And the camp's effectiveness shows in the boys that participate. Some say it's the greatest experience they've had in their entire lives.

Now I'm going to give y'all a couple links. The first one is to an entry in my friend Jeff's web log:

Jeff is leading A.B.L.E. camp this year, and this entry will give more information about the project and how you can help.

And here's a link to our Peace Corps Partnership Program grant page: It will also give some more background information about A.B.L.E. camp, and if you'd like to donate, you may do so on the page.

Thank you for reading about this great project. Any donations would, of course, be much appreciated.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Azerbaijan Softball

Hey, y'all. I'm going to take a minute here to tell y'all about an ongoing project in Azerbaijan. For years, volunteers have been organizing softball teams all over the country, giving them an opportunity to teach Azerbaijanis about the game and have some fun.

This year, they're working hard to gather the necessary funds to keep the project going. They would love a donation from anyone willing to give five dollars or more. You can visit this website for more information about the project and how to donate:

I, for one, am a big fan of this project and hope it can achieve the same success it's experienced in past years. If you're interested, please take a look at the link, and any donations would bbe greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Curious Little Kid

29 May 2009

Today, I’m going to touch up on a couple topics I’ve mentioned before. I’m going to kind of combine the two, and we’ll see how it works out.

I’ve written to you all about my little host brother, Rustəm, a really good kid. I’ve talked about his creativity and letter writing, and I’ve also said a thing or two about the simplicity of village living.

Well, this village, where generations of Mahmudovs (my host family’s last name) have lived, is the perfect place for a kid like Rustəm. I thought to write about this after hearing him carelessly sing to himself in the hallway and playing badminton with him after lunch. He enjoys my company as a playmate, but he beautifully goes off into his own world as well, and what a setting for such behavior.

I’m pleased as punch to see him nearly every day, wandering about the trees and rivers, running around aimlessly, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. He loves when I ask what he’s up to, so he can show me. An example is when he rigged something up with rocks that would hold a vine back so he could swing farther on it. Like I said, he’s very creative, and all he needs is what’s laid out for him around Qumlaq.

Sure, this is a small village, smaller than any community I’ve lived in, but its simplicity is satisfying. I wrote before about how people just walk around town, and when I ask them what they’re up to, they say, “Nothing.” I wouldn’t say “nothing” implies “We’re being worthless,” though. Rustəm may say “nothing” when I ask what he’s doing, but, in reality, he’s enjoying his childhood, emulating, according to my Azerbaijani teacher, Sevil Müəllimi, how his father, Firuz, acted as a child.

So there may not be a bunch of bells and whistles to entertain us around Qumlaq village, but I can say that people – in partucular, young people – are content with what they have. When I see folks cheerfully greeting their neightbors or Rustəm curiously wandering around, that comes to light, and it inspires me.

28 May

27 May 2009

It’s interesting to look at the next couple days’ progression of events. As all teachers and English education Peace Corps volunteers in Azerbaijan know, this is the last week of school. After Friday, the summer and, basically, whatever we feel like doing ‘till September, will be ahead of us, which is a nice thought, unless you’re like Charlie and me and are afraid you might get a little bored. We’ll see how it goes. Anyway, I’m kinna getting off the topic (already).

With that said, Thursday is a holiday. Wow, what a convenient time for one. What’s it celebrating anyway, that we’d be off from work and school on the day before the last day of school?

Well, it’s celebrating the day Azerbaijan became an independent republic in 1918. Now, hold on. Isn’t there a lot of other stuff that happened between then and now? Yeah, plenty happened, but let’s take a look at Azerbaijani history around this time.

We’ll start over a hundred years before 1918. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Azerbaijan was ruled by several independent Persian khanates, or small regions under the control of a khan, or ruler. In fact, the diverse culture of Azerbaijan’s present rayons can be attributed to this era, as several of these khanates corresponded with present day rayons, such as: Shirvan, Ganja, Quba, and Shaki.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Russia became a big threat in the region. By this time, the area of present day Azerbaijan had been conquered by Agha Muhammed Khan Qajar. This khanate declared war on Russia but was eventually defeated, and, in 1813, Russia controlled the territory. The Persian Qajars submitted to a final settlement, the Treaty of Turkmenchay, in 1828, which established the present day Azerbaijan-Iran border.

During this period of Russian rule (not to be confused with the Soviet era, which came along a century later), petroleum was discovered and exploited, and Azerbaijan experienced great prosperity (for the rich, at least) and growth. This was extremely important, not just in terms Azerbaijan’s economy, but also its society.

But why? The great disparity between rich and poor as a result of this exploitative economy brought on the emergence of an Azeri nationalist intelligencia that sparked quite a discourse in the region. It took a stand against poverty, ignorance, and extremism, and called for reforms in education and the rights of dispossessed classes, including women. These may have been unprecedented values, as present day Azerbaijan, throughout its history, had been ruled largely by oppressive outside forces.

These values clearly stuck as Russia lost its grasp on the area as a result of its involvement in World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917. And on May 28th, 1918, Azerbaijan became an independent democratic republic. It was the first democratic republic in the Islamic world.

Of course, this was short lived, as Azerbaijan became a Soviet republic in 1920. Nonetheless, May 28th deserves great recognition. It doesn’t merely celebrate the brief Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan established in 1918, but the triumph of freethinking. While being passed from one ruling power to another, a movement emerged that recognized the solidarity of the Azerbaijani people. When I look at Azerbaijanis today, I see very nationalistic people, people that are proud of their heritage, and that may have a lot to do with this independent thinking that prevailed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, giving great relevance to May 28th 1918, when Azerbaijan first became it’s own republic.

Go. Come. Sit. Stand. Eat. Drink.

26 May 2009

I admit that’s kind of a weird title for an entry, but it’ll hopefully make more sense in a moment.

I’m fascinated by the Azerbaijani language. It’s different than any language I’ve ever heard, and with good reason. It’s part of a family of languages with which I wasn’t the least bit familiar until coming to Azerbaijan. It’s interesting what goes through your head before coming to another country whose language you don’t know. I can remember running around the neighborhood in Driftwood, Texas the weeks before coming to Azerbaijan, thinking, “Yep, I’m going there for two years. I’m going to learn the language, although I have no idea what it sounds like.” Then, I remember learning my first Azerbaijani sentence: “Mənim adım Condur (My name is John (Remember that “Con” is pronounced like “John” in Azerbaijani.).)”. Wait. Where’s the verb? What’s with the upside down ‘e’? What’s with this crazy language?

Well, like other volunteers, I got the hang of it. I can pronounce the words okay and tag the verbs onto the ends of the sentences. As you start to get it better and better, you notice certain trends in how people talk. The command form of the verb is used a lot. Let me give you some examples:

Example 1:

John: Hey, first host mom, I’m going running.

First Host Mom: Run!

Example 2:

First Host Mom: Eat!

Example 3:

First Host Mom: Drink!

Example 4:

Random Group of Dudes at the Çayxana: Come. Drink tea!

Example 5:

Second Host Mom: Come. Eat bread!

Example 6:

Second Host Dad: Come. Eat Bread. Afterwards, sit. Write.

Do you get the picture? This is how folks talk a lot of the time. It’s funny when you think about it, kind of a style of talking that’s, in a sense, encouragement through bossiness. I mean, it sounds bossy, but it’s really just their way of getting the message across in a short-and-sweet fashion. When you tell the passerby, “Come. Drink tea!” that doesn’t mean he has to sit down and have a glass with you. That’s just your way of inviting him. When my host mom would tell me, “Run!” it was to send me on my way. She could’ve cared less if I run. The same goes for lots of scenarios.

Languages are funny, and the more you learn about a foreign language, the more you understand the people’s difficulties with English. For example, an Azerbaijani may tell you, in English, “Give me book,” which sounds rude to us, but, well, that’s what they would say in their own language. Similar trends occur in other languages, as well. I tell ya. It’s interesting stuff.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Burial

14 May 2009

In my last entry, I talked about things that bind cultures together. Well, there’s another one, and it’s obvious: death. Not the friendliest word, huh? I guess it depends on how you look at it. Whether it comforts or shakes you, it happens. Nobody can avoid it, no matter where he’s from.

What may separate us is how we handle it. I mean, all people have they’re own way of coping with such a profound part of life. Growing up, I experienced it when loved ones passed: the visitation the night before, the service at the church, and the burial. It’s all powerful and wonderful.

A Russian teacher at the school’s mother recently died, and Firuz, my host dad, encouraged me to go to the burial. Death’s an interesting thing around here. You just happen to hear about it from one person or another. There’s no big announcement, which might be a good thing. A man actually committed suicide recently, and I just heard about it from some folks here and there.

Anyway, at about three today, I waited at the center of town for a car to take me and whoever else to the cemetery. We got there, and it was me and a random assortment of men, wandering around, checking out the gravestones with the deceased’s pictures etched into them (interesting, huh?). One little boy, whom I have for English club, was crying with his face pressed against the leg of an older man. I felt kind of weird just standing around with these dudes, wondering what was going to happen.

Before I knew it, a large group of men walked into the cemetery. I approached them and joined the procession. They were hoisting the body, and they eventually made it to the hole where the body would be placed. It was carried on a big wooden plank, with blankets wrapped around it. There was no coffin. It was eventually placed into the hole, and a wooden board was put on top to seal it in. After the body was placed, several men took turns shoveling dirt into the hole until it was filled.

Once that was finished and the prayers were said, we processed out. I asked Firuz why no women came, and he told me they would come a few days later. That’s the tradition. We then went to the deceased’s house and had tea and chatted a little. It was a nice way to unwind a bit after being at the gravesite.

It’s interesting experiencing death in another culture. Like I said, it happens everywhere, and I honor how it’s done here. I’m sure it’s hard for those involved, but they also accept it. In a world where health care can vary, you sometimes must step aside and let the person die. I never heard any news coming up to it. All I heard was that Mrs. Taxıra’s mother died. I might be wrong, but I can picture her loved ones, sadly, but earnestly, nodding their heads in the living room, saying, “Yep, it was her time,” and that makes sense. Like Dad says, we aren’t immortal.

Drinkin' Tea with Grandpa

14 May 2009

There’re certain things that bind cultures together. What comes to mind? Laughter? Hospitality? Family? Love? You can see these everywhere you go, but there’s one that might not come up so quickly, and it’s essential. It’s the backbone of any society. It’s grandpas. You know who I’m talking about: the men sitting at the corner booth of the Huddle House, sipping coffee with the sun shining through; the fellows hunkered down on the front porch, watching kids go by and chatting about how it’s "just not the same" nowadays; the gentlemen standing on either side of the front door at your church, greeting you with a smile as you walk in. Yeah, you get the idea.

Guess what. Azerbaijan’s got ‘em, too, and I’m pleased. Now, I didn’t know what to think as I passed these gentlemen every day on my way to school. They frequently sit together at the bus stop, not necessarily because they’re going somewhere, but because it’s a good sitting spot. They’d always greet me kindly, but I’d keep on my way to class.

One day, I took a load off at one of the two çayxanas in the center of the village. The Qumlaq çayxanas are pretty rustic, on a side note. Ain’t nothing in ‘em but a few tables and a set of dominoes. That’s all you need, though, it seems. Anyway, I sat there, and a pot o’ tea was delivered to my table, where I sat and had a glass by myself. Seeing as it’s not so much fun to drink a whole pot by yourself, I decided to try my luck at socializing and brought my glass and pot to a table of grandpas. I was pleased as they welcomed me kindly to the group, and we happily sat there and shot the breeze together. We talked about our homelands, and they gave me expert advice, like how drinking plenty of tea will keep me from getting ill (Heck, maybe they’re right. I haven’t suffered much sickness since being here.). It was a nice exchange, and I’ve been back since, with good reason.

I like these guys. They have a good attitude. They aren’t macho or grouchy. In fact, they joke around like kids more than anything, always trying to "get each other’s goat". I don’t know if they like me so much, but they seem to appreciate how I’m a change in their routine. Heck, whatever it takes.

Here’s some advice, hang out with a grandpa or two. Learn from him. Joke with him. You’ll be glad you did. Sit down with the fellows at the Huddle House. If they sneer at ya, no harm done. If they welcome you, you made a few new friends, and like I said in the "Çayxana" entry, you’ll also appreciate the value of friendly company. Outstanding.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Bizim Pay

17 April 2009

When you receive a little something in the mail, what’s your first reaction? It may be to tear it open at the post office, where you friends can see and congratulate you on your new treasure. It also may be to take it back to your room and open it in privacy. This is what I usually do when I receive a package, letter, or whatever. I wait until nighttime, when I’m done with my work and it’s quiet. There’s something very gratifying about waiting until that moment. I honestly hadn’t realized the value of a good letter until I came here.

I like the attitude folks have about this sort of thing around here, especially when it comes to packages. I recall a time in which a package had arrived from my aunt Nita. One teacher told me a package came, then another, then another (I guess news travels fast.). Then I went home, and my host dad also told me about the package. "Okay, okay, I got it," I thought.

The next day, a teacher wanted to know what was in the package. It’s not like there was anything too personal in it. It was just that…well…I wasn’t too comfortable giving out that kind of information. Sevil Müəllimi, my Azerbaijani language tutor, told me that’s just how things work around here. Someone receives something, and everyone wants to know about it. People want their share, or "pay" (pronounced like "pie") in Azerbaijani. "Bizim pay" means "our share", and that really is how things roll around here. One thing belongs to everyone. When I first met my host family here in Oğuz, I gave them some chewy pecan pralines, a signature Texas treat. Well, my host mother didn’t keep them to herself and the family. She gave them to her friends around the village. I shared some Snickers bars with my host family, and Aybəniz saved half of hers to give to Aygьn, her dear friend. A similar thing happened when I shared some Starburst Jellybeans with Hцkьmə and Rustəm. Hцkьmə took a couple for herself, then some for a friend. When I brought a bag of Robin’s Eggs malted milk balls to school, a teacher made sure everyone in the teacher’s room had one. Just one is enough for everyone’s share (While I have no problem eating them by the handful. That probably won’t change.).

Despite the ups and downs that can come with being in a new culture, there’s something utterly beautiful about this. I can yell at the students in class or hide from the unwanted attention, but there’s something to be said about a thirteen year old girl saving a few jellybeans given by the American for her good friend.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


15 April 2009

If you’ve ever been to Azerbaijan (and possibly several other countries) and learned a bit about its culture, chances are you know about these places. Personally, I’m a fan of them.

“Çayxana” means “tea house”, and they’re very prevalent around here. I’d say just about every little village has at least one, and they’re not hard to spot. If you’re walking down the street in a typical town, you’ll see an establishment, often with a patio area. Little tables will be set up out front and inside with small receptacles for holding sugar cubes. I must add that these establishments are traditionally for men only. Now, women may be able to go to them, but it might attract some interesting attention.

On any given day, you’ll see men seated at the outside and inside tables, taking sips from little glasses with a teapot between them. This is where many men convene just about every day. They relax, talk, and play chess or backgammon. From an American perspective, it’s an interesting thing to see men do. I joke with my friends sometimes about this. Picture the typical dudes’ get together in the States. Chances are they’d be hanging around the bar, tossing beers and talking trash. Well, the same macho men do that here, except they’re grasping little tea glasses, and a pot with flowers painted on it sits between them.

I love it! Despite my admiration for beer, who says it’s imperative for a dudes’ get together? I, for one, am a fan of caffeinated beverages, and a pot of tea on a sunny afternoon after a days’ work isn’t a bad way to do it, especially if you’re with your friends. My sitemate Charlie and I get together at least once a week at the çayxana of our choosing (There, of course, are several of ‘em in Oğuz.). We sit down with some tea and shoot the breeze for a while. Charlie mentioned that it’s become almost a motif of our experience.

There may be differing opinions regarding the çayxana, but, to me, there’s something very relevant about them. It’s good to know that people value slowing down and enjoying each other’s company. We often have to run around here and there, and we forget about the simple pleasures that bring us to life.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Takin' a Little Run

10 April 2009

When you’re living and working in a different culture, you realize the importance of healthy habits that keep your mind, body, and spirit up to the task. These can range from reading, writing, prayer, playing a musical instrument, or whatever activity it may be. I write this web log partially because it feels good to write. It helps me put things in a better perspective.

Several times a week, I also like to hit the road and jog a few miles. It’s an activity I’ve always enjoyed. It’s interesting, though, doing it in broad daylight in a little village in Azerbaijan. It isn’t too common here, as many volunteers can testify. Running in public, with no particular destination in mind, can attract some odd stares and maybe even some harassment here and there. I can remember one time, when I was living in Ceyranbatan, in which my friend Charlie’s host brother saw me running by, and he looked at me curiously and asked, "Hara? (Where?)". Many volunteers avoid the varied reactions of the locals by either not running at all or heading out when people aren’t around. Some friends of mine in the rayon of İsmayıllı run at about six in the morning (It also grants them the liberty of wearing shorts.).

Thus far, in the ol’ village, that hasn’t been my style. At about five P.M., I head out the door and get my exercise in. This is partially because I tried the whole "running in the morning" thing. While it was nice to jog in the quiet with no one around, it wasn’t so nice to not be able to see where I was going. I fell hard on my left ankle the second or third time I did it, and I called it quits after that. Luckily, my ankle healed, and now I just run in the sunshine when others are out walking, drinking çay and playing backgammon, or playing volleyball (They’re really good at volleyball, by the way. I get put to shame when I step out there.). Sure, it attracts some attention, but not all of it’s bad. I get smiles and waves from the men drinking tea by the store. Women do the same while they’re walking down the road. Kids yell out, "Hi, John! How are you?!" which can be annoying, but at least it isn’t negative. I’ve even had some "followers" recently, but they generally taper off after about fifteen yards. It also appears, at least around here, that not all people find it necessarily "weird". I’ve gotten good reviews from various people. One man told me, "You know, John. I see you running a lot out there, and that’s a good thing. Folks around here, they don’t run, but you do. That’s good." Some women may also say, "John won’t get fat because he exercises" (It also, on a side note, has been good to maintain a healthy appetite. People appreciate that.).

Anyway, it’s just good to know that my strange, American ways aren’t necessarily strange to everyone. By being an English speaking foreigner in a small Azerbaijani village, I’m already pretty weird. What difference does taking a little run make?

Saturday, April 4, 2009


4 April 2009

There’s a verb that exists in the Azerbaijani language that really amuses me. It’s "qonaq etmək", which, if translated literally, means "to do/make guest", with "qonaq" being the word for "guest" and "etmək" the word for "to do" or "to make". Okay that doesn’t make a whole lotta sense, but let’s try and translate this in a better way. According to my big, clunky Azerbaijani to English dictionary, "qonaq etmək" means "to entertain", "to treat", or "to feast". Ah, perhaps it’s ringing a better bell with you now.

Being or entertaining a guest is a big part of the culture here, or anywhere, really, but I’ll concentrate on how it’s done here. We Peace Corps volunteers typically just say that were "going guesting" every now and then, signifying that we’re heading to an Azerbaijani’s house to eat and spend time with their friends and family. Let me paint the picture for you:

You approach the host’s house, and they warmly welcome you, immediately telling you to take off your shoes and put on a pair of slippers. Then you walk into the house and sit right down. In my experience, there’s never been the American custom of showing the guest around the house. You come, and you sit, and the T.V.’s usually on, too. I guess it serves as an extra diversion for the people’s attention. As you get accustomed to the surroundings and Turkish pop songs are playing on the tube, çay is served, along with various little cakes and candies. You gotta love this custom that would get you slapped by your mama if you were back in the States. Folks here eat sweets before and after dinner. Priceless.

After having a spot, or several, of tea and chatting it up with other folks at the table, the sweets are taken away, and the meal comes out. An interesting aspect I’ve experienced that isn’t so common back home is that the women are often going back and forth from the kitchen while only the men sit and eat. I suppose the locals are used to it, but I keep wanting to say, "Come, sit down. We got things to talk about," while they’re pacing to and fro.

Nonetheless, the food is tasty. It typically consists of a few dishes. One of them is dolma. You’ll rarely guest at someone’s place and not have this. Dolma is either grape leaves or cabbage stuffed with meat and rice. It’s good stuff. Then, of course, there’ll be plenty of fresh bread to go with it. I’ve become a world-class bread eater since being in this country. Every time I go for a run nowadays, I can feel it there, weighing me down, but it’s so good that it’d be a crime if I refused it.

Also, they might serve up some cutlet, which is cooked ground beef patties, kind of like a chop steak or burger, without the bun of course. Sometimes it’s served with scrambled eggs, too (providing enough fat and protein for the next few days). They also might serve some turkey or chicken stew with potatoes, and, of course, no bout of guesting would be complete without dovğra. It’s a type of yogurt-based drink with cilantro and other little greens in it. It’s served hot or cold. When I first tried it, I was like, "You gotta be kidding." I can remember when Charlie first gave it a whirl, at his host family’s house in Ceyranbatan. I was sitting next to him, and when I asked, "How is it?" he responded, after swallowing and making a priceless face, "It’s interesting," which, for some reason, made me laugh consistently throughout our meal there, perhaps to the chagrin or simply confusion of the host. Anyway, I’m getting off topic. Yeah, it seemed kinna weird at first, but it grew on me, and Charlie, too. It’s definitely an acquired taste.
Being the good hosts that they are, the Azerbaijanis will also insist that you eat more and more…and then more. My old football coach, Darly Hayes, would’ve been pleased. You gotta be careful, ‘cause, you know, you gotta save room for dessert, which is, well, what you had before dinner, with more çay. Oh, well, what the heck. Indulge. Life is short.

I’d say guesting is a pleasurable experience, and it’s certainly a testimony to the hospitality of folks that’re glad to have you. I’m also amazed to see the word "qonaq" have such a strong presence in the Azerbaijani language: "çağrılmış qonaq" (invited guest), "çağrilmamış qonaq" (uninvited guest / intruder (I guess it wouldn’t be good if you were this person.)), hörmətli qonaq (respected guest), şərəfli qonaq (guest of honor), qonaq getmək (to visit, to pay a visit), qonaq gəlmək (to come to see), qonaq qəbul etmək (to receive visitors / guests), qonaq qalmaq (to be on a visit), qonaq otağı (living room). If the handful of phrases with the word “qonaq” is any indication, I’d say it’s a big part of the culture, and that says a lot about these folks.

Heç nə

1 April 2009

You gotta love living in a village, because I hear this phrase all the time. As I was walking back to my host family’s house on this beautiful spring day, I said hey to a few folks sitting on a bench. I asked them, "What are you up to," and they responded, "Heç nə (nothing)."

I get that response a lot, especially when I ask someone what he’s doing. Now, it may seem that doing "nothing" is probably not a good thing, but let’s think about it for a minute. I’ll give an example. In the town of Oğuz, where the rayon is centered, there are a few Internet cafes. These places are usually packed with little kids playing computer games. It’s really annoying when you’re trying to write an email to your mom and dad. Or let’s just ponder, for a second, the typical couch potato, wherever he may be, watching the tube all afternoon. I mean, he’s doing something, but that something may not be better than nothing, which is why I’m a fan of the village life. A lot of the time, when you’re walking around, you may ask someone, "Whatcha doin?" and he may say, "Nothing," when in fact, he’s simply walking around himself, or chatting with his buddy, or…I dunno…sitting on a rock. I’d say that’s about as edifying an activity as anything else. Can’t you think of some fond moments in which you were doing just that? How much more does a person need?

It reassures me that simplicity ain’t bad. We can’t help but want this or that, and the material world certainly isn’t bad, either, but if we can’t hang out and shoot the breeze with our buddies, what are we worth? What have we gained? Heck, Man, if something is gonna detract me from life’s simple pleasures, then I’ll take nothing over that. Would you agree? Just goes to show life isn’t that complicated.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

School? On Sunday?!

30 March 2009

Can’t say I wasn’t a bit perturbed about this piece of news, merely a day after my arrival back at site near the end of the Novruz holiday. I had been hanging out with friends in various places in Azerbaijan, enjoying the two weeks of “tətil” (vacation) that we had. I got back to my host family’s on Saturday, and I was looking forward to a relaxing day in which I could plan for the week and enjoy my newly arrived issue of The Christian Science Monitor. I was lying in bed at about seven o’clock Sunday morning, and I got up to ask Firuz if he could turn the volume down in the T.V. in the dining room.

He responded, “You’re not going to school?”

“What? School?”

“Yes, school. There’s class, class.”

“It’s Sunday.”

“Well, there was vacation, and now we’re having class today.”

“But it’s Sunday.”

“Yes, it was a holiday. There’s class today.”

This little piece of news wasn’t taken with a whole lotta gratitude, if you can imagine such a response. I was mystified and, well, pissed off. To my own criticism, Charlie had informed me the night before, “They’re making me go to class tomorrow!” At that time, I thought, “Surely they must be mistaken.”

Well, that morning, with me still in my sleeping clothes with no lesson plans, the joke was on me. I headed out the door in a hurry and met Mrs. Adilə for class. It really wasn’t a bad day, as it was Friday’s schedule, which is just two eighth form classes. I tried to find out, though, from my counterpart, why we were having class on Sunday, and I got the same “It was a holiday” response.

What the heck is that supposed to mean?

Is this to say that, because we had a two week holiday, we have to make up for it by having an extra day of class, on freaking Sunday?!

Now, I’m no stranger to different cultures. I can deal with stuff. I’m okay with the A.T.M. crowd. I like tea. I can live with not crossing my legs when I sit down or not putting my hands in my pockets when I walk around, but school on Sunday is pushing the limit. Not only was it an unpleasant surprise, but it also got my days turned around. It made Sunday feel like Monday, and today, being the actual Monday, I approached some students to talk about English club today, and they responded, “You mean Tuesday?” “Aaaggghhh!” I thought, “What the heck day is it?!”

Oh, well, what can I do? This work can’t be on my own terms. Heck, if I was a teacher in the States, I’d have to attend those mysterious “teacher-in-service” days while the students ran free. This is just another reality of what I’m doing, and I’m cool with that.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Peç

6 March 2009

I don’t know if any of you have extensive experience with one of these things, but for the inexperienced among us, it can be an…um…somewhat frustrating process.

My source of heat in my room is a little contraption the Azerbaijanis call a "peç" (pronounced "pech"). It has a boxy, rectangular shape, with a large, metal tube leading up above the roof, where the smoke comes out. It’s cool to see the outside of the school building here in the village, where every room has a peç, and the many tubes protruding from the walls, with smoke billowing out. To get it going, you put logs into the "box", get ‘em lit, close the little door, and voila, your room is "isti" (warm) before you know it.

Well, hmmm…Anybody here have much experience with fires? This guy doesn’t. In fact, I’d have to say that fiddling with this peç has been my first experience with starting a fire on a regular basis. I knew I should’ve joined the Boy Scouts.

Now, I probably could ask my host mom or dad every night if they could light it for me, but what self-respecting Peace Corps Volunteer would do that? Nope, I was determined to get this right myself, every time.

Yes, good thinking, John. I mean, I had seen them light the peç for me before, and it didn’t seem like any big deal. Basically, you take a few logs, maybe some paper, pour a little "neft" (some kind of lighter fluid) on it, strike a match, and, like I said before, "voila", you got a warm room.

That’s at least what I thought, but why would it be as easy as that? That would be no fun, right? So I went through the same protocol I saw Firuz and Aybəniz do, and, of course, things look good at first when you got the "neft" on the logs. They flare up in a lovely glow, and I close the little peç door, brush off my hands, and say "Glad that’s done."

Wait a minute (And that’s all it really takes. About a minute.). As I walk away from the peç and go about my other business, I no longer hear the roar that the flames were making earlier but the pathetic pittle of one little struggling flame, destined to go out soon. I then say, "What the heck?" and stick my face down into the peç, to see nothing more than steamy logs and a little smoke, but no fire. "Crap," I think, and go for desperate action, that is, doing it over again.
So I go through the process of sticking a little paper between the same, now hot to the touch, logs, pour a little more "neft" on ‘em, and light it up. Ah, another heavenly glow, and I stick around to inspect it a little longer this time. It appears the logs are starting to redden and create the "coal" effect, which is another good sign. I decide not to leave the peç’s side this time around, but it’s not like that helps too much, because, as I sit there looking in, I can clearly see that the flame is, once again, going out, and the logs continue to just sit there, now red, hissing at me. "Dangit," I think. "What’s the deal here?" It’s time for more drastic action.

What exactly constitutes drastic action? The inclusion of fast-moving air. That’s what. If there’s one thing that helps get a fire going, it’s blowing air onto it. So I go through the same process, get the fire lit, let it sit for a minute, and as it starts to die down again, I’m ready with lungs full of CO2.

So I blow, then again, then again, harder and harder, and it works…somewhat. The flames get going again, but the logs, all laid down parallel in the "box", have all been, more or less, "hollowed out" from being lit that all they do is simply flare up for a moment and die down again. Being the genius I am, though, I decide it’s a good idea to blow even harder, because surely that’ll do the trick. Mind you, I’m beginning to get a little angry at this point. I mean, come on. All I was is a warm room at night. I blow so hard and with such frequency that I begin to feel quite faint and have to take a rest. I lay on my floor to see, once again, that the stupid thing is still not lit. "Aaaagggghhhh!," I loudly groan in a Charlie Brown-esque exhalation of frustration. Okay, now I’m mad, but still determined, and I continue to poke around at the logs and check out what’s going on with this confounded peç, quietly (or, at least, trying to be quiet) cursing it and my own incompetence. At this point, Aybəniz can hear me clanking around in my room, and she knows just what I’m doing. She comes in and asks, "You trying to light the peç?"

"Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Thanks (Go away.)"

"Alright, let’s take a look here."

She peers in and assesses the situation, placing a coal or two here and there. Telling me to move a log this way and that. Then she tells me to blow on it a little, and a flame goes up.

"Alright. We’re cool," she says.

"Really?" I think, "Is that all it took?"

Yes, that’s all it took. The logs slowly kindle up, and the peç, slowly but surely, is going strong. "Great googly moogly," I think.

Well, like so many things in life, lighting the peç is all about trial and error. I eventually learned the ins and outs of getting it going well, and, now, I can get it on the first or second try, just about every time.

I also must say there’s something just lovely about the thing. As the sun goes down, the day done, it’s finally time to relax, and lighting up the warm peç has almost come to symbolize that relaxation. Living in a small village, the nights are peaceful and quiet, and as I sit there in my room with the peç going strong, writing or reading a good book, all the anxieties and frustrations of the day seem to go out the window. It’s a good feeling.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Hi, I'm from Driftwood village

27 February 2009

I believe all people should take great pleasure in describing where they’re from. After all, it’s an important part of their identity. Whether a person’s from California, Mississippi, Canada, or China, they hopefully take pride in talking about their homeland, or, at least, that’s the ideal situation. Understandably, this may not always be the case. Nonetheless, in my case, I got no problem telling people I’m from Driftwood, Texas (I mean, c’mon. We have a good barbecue restaurant, a vineyard, and a post office. What more do you need?).

This becomes a bit sticky, though, when you’re talking with folks in a village in Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijani, there’re basically two words to describe a community: şəhər (city) and kənd (village). So when someone asks me if I’m from a city or village, what exactly do I say? I’m from Driftwood, Texas, a community consisting primarily of nice housing developments. To say it was a “city” would be a lie, so I’ve stuck with the latter term. However, that seems kinna weird, too. People in Qumlaq village, Oğuz, Azerbaijan, where the roads are mostly unpaved and I run next to a sheep herd, may fall under the impression that I’m from Driftwood “village.” Hmmm…but how the heck else would I describe where I’m from? Balıcı şəhər (small city)? No, that doesn’t work. Böyük kənd (big village)? That doesn’t really make sense. My only solution has been to stick with “village” and try to describe Driftwood in decent detail so folks can have some kind of understanding.

But what a pleasure it is to do such things! Like I’ve said before, it ain’t always easy to describe where you’re from and what it’s like, but I feel like every time I make the effort to do so, I’m making a difference. I may not be providing everyone with every developmental need they may have, but I’m still giving them a better understanding of the United States of America (or, at least, trying to). So I’m from Driftwood village. Does it make the place sound more interesting? What do you think? Heck, if anyone has any bright ideas on how I can tackle this better, let me know.

Cup o' Tea

Here’s something I probably should’ve written about a long time ago. It’s been a prevalent aspect of my life since living with my first host family in Ceyranbatan. You can barely sit down anywhere in Azerbaijan and not have a cup of çay sitting in front of you. It just wouldn’t look right.

Tea is a funny drink, if I may just speak of the substance itself for a moment. I remember my dad speaking fondly of it, how it doesn’t jolt you awake like coffee can and kinna eases you up, like the slow ascent of a roller coaster (without the sudden drop later on). But in its funniness, I can see the appeal, and I’ve thought about it a lot.

If anyone knows me well, they know that I love coffee. I’m a Gahan, and we Gahans are coffee drinkers. Dad mixes his special blend of Cajun chicory and whatever else on a regular basis (although it’s a bit weak, but I won’t hold it against him.). However, with my favorite drink comes a limit. Eventually, I’ve had enough (albeit it may take a lot sometimes). I also don’t normally drink it at night, as it might disrupt my sleep.

Çay’s different, though. You don’t reach a limit. If you want, you can sit there and put away a hundred cups, pausing only to go to the bathroom. You can drink it morning, noon, evening, and, heck, even a spot before hitting the sack. It don’t make no difference.

So no wonder the Azerbaijanis drink it all the time. It not only tastes good and has a bit of caffeine, but it’s the ‘round the clock drink. If you come as a guest in an Azerbaijani home, chances are you’ll be served tea before and after the meal. If you’re sitting down, having a chat, or anything of the sort, why not have some tea as well?

As I continue to analyze tea’s social status around here, I come to a relative estimation of how much tea the average family must buy, and by “relative estimation,” I simply mean that it must be “a lot” of tea. Now, just think about it: Every family buying a ton of tea means that tea companies rake it in, and the last time I checked, that industry has played a big role in world history. Ah, it makes sense to me now. Millions of people hooked on a beverage makes a difference in world economics (Go figure, John.). The case is similar for coffee companies in Latin America or that beer company in Milwaukee that makes more beer every day than you could imagine (I visited the brewery.).

Alright, has this become boring yet? I didn’t intend that, and, for the remaining time, let’s toss the economic hoo-hah aside. To put it simply, I’ve become a fan of tea. I’ve said this many times about it: It’s relaxing and stimulating at the same time, if any beverage could accomplish such a thing. It gives you this comfy feeling and sets your mind straight.

I especially enjoy it at the snack bar at the school. After teaching a few classes, no matter how they went, it’s nice to sit down and drink a pot in the back room, whether by yourself or with others. Instead of being John Müəllim (Teacher), the English teacher from the United States, I’m just John, and the teachers and I can have a conversation, like normal friends do. I’ve come to appreciate that in a place where I can feel like an outsider, despite the warmth and goodness of the local people. It’s not to say we gotta have tea to be friends, but, heck, it doesn’t hurt.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Shaking of the Hand

21 February 2009

There’s a certain mannerism of all people around here, adults and children alike, that I find very respectable. Now, it’s not that people don’t do this elsewhere, but here, everyone does it, without fail.

Most days start out the same, as I walk across the creek, up the muddy hill, and down the road to the Qumlaq village school. People are usually making their own ways to school, and others are waiting at the little bus stop to be taken to town. Other folks are standing next to their cars in the area that the school and a couple other markets surround, waiting to see if someone’ll be willing to pay a little extra for a ride. And there’s one other thing I always expect, and that’s that several young kids will see me walking towards the school building, mosey up to me, and shake my hand. It doesn’t matter if they’re six or eighteen years old. They all reach their hands out and say hello. Now, all the attention can sometimes annoy even the most sensible person, but, still, what civility. I don’t recall shaking someone’s hand so willingly as a young child. I do remember my dad telling me to shake a man’s hand, but I was never too excited to do so.

On the same note, let me tell you about a couple young men in particular in one of my eighth form classes. It’s a common trend here in Azerbaijan, and in the States to a certain extent, too, that boys can some times be, well, not-so-strong students. I can’t say that makes me happy, and the, um, “unhappiness” comes out after I’ve called on the same handful of girls throughout the class period, and these boys haven’t said a word. I suppose it doesn’t matter where you are. These kinds of students are everywhere. Heck, at some points in time, I could’ve been one of those boys. Nonetheless, when I see them sitting together, their interest in the topic questionable, I call on one of them. Sometimes they surprise me with a good answer. Sometimes they just stand there, and snickering ensues around the room, causing me to become more irritated, at times to the point where I begin to rant about why the girls are always answering the questions and the boys ain’t doing nothing.

Well, eventually class ends, and I begin packing up my things. As I begin to make my way out of the classroom, these two boys always approach m and shake my hand. I might’ve embarrassed the crap out of them, but they still look me in the eye and lend me a sincere goodbye, and I gotta respect that.

What a display of character it is when you know you sometimes disappoint, and yet you still have the gall to shake a man’s hand. While growing up, I always knew that a great way to make amends was to do just that, as if to say, “Despite anything else, I offer myself to you as I am, and I hope you respect me as I respect you.” A real man returns the favor, no matter what.

I’m not so naïve as to think that every student in this Azerbaijani community is going to be overjoyed to learn English. For many students, I’m sure, it’s low on their list of priorities. Teachers everywhere know what I’m talking about. However, no reasonable person can simply shrug off a young man’s sincerity at the end of the day, and if he did, who would truly deserve the reprimand?

Tom and Jerry

Since I’ve been on the subject of T.V. so much lately, I suppose I’ll go ahead and talk about it a little more. This one, I must say, is the most fulfilling of them all.

Sitting around the white plastic table in my host family’s living room, loaves of bread laying on its bare surface, turkey stew or dolma sitting there, waiting to be eaten, we’re, of course, glancing, at least from time to time, at the T.V. It’s pretty customary around here to have the tube going, and I’m kinna neutral about it. On one end, it diverts our attention away from each other, but, on another end, it, well, diverts our attention away from each other. Simply put, I must say it’s nice, sometimes, to be able to just watch the T.V. without feeling like I have to make conversation (Sometimes, you can only think of so many things to talk about.), or maybe I’m just being lame. Whatever the case, I’m getting a little off the topic.

Every now and then, Rustəm’ll give me a nudge and excitedly tell me, “John, Tom and Jerry! Tom and Jerry!” You know this show, right? Well, I certainly hadn’t forgotten about it, but let’s get serious here. That show rarely comes on T.V. anymore in the States, so it was a lovely reminder of the simple fun those shows provide. And, yes, much like the other program featuring American jackasses jumping off their roofs, language isn’t a problem. Both Rustəm and I derive the same enjoyment from our favorite cartoon.

Perhaps you’ve picked up on it already. Yes, I get as excited as Rustəm does when Tom and Jerry comes on. I can’t help it. Number one, I love cartoons, and, number two, it’s so dang refreshing to watch such a show while I’m living far from home. I felt the same way in Brazil when I discovered The Pink Panther cartoon came on every now and then. It’s not only entertaining, but it’s also a reminder of such pure fun, which seems forgotten much of the time. Nowadays, things seem to be made more complicated on purpose. Instead of laughing heartily at Roadrunner and Coyote, we’re peering into people’s “lives” on reality T.V. shows (which they also have here…not a fan). Instead of enjoying another episode of Looney Tunes, we’re playing computer games about stealing cars (I only say that because the folks at the Internet café play “Grand Theft Auto”...all the time.) For me, it took living in Azerbaijan to remind me that there’s nothing wrong with kicking back and having a laugh at what we’ll hopefully never forget.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Watching Videos of People Doing Dumb Stuff on T.V.

11 February 2009

As I sit here at my desk, tired and weary after a pretty full day, I just gotta elaborate on something I’ve been meaning to talk about for some time. Now, as plenty can attest, Azerbaijani folk, like many of the twenty-first century, enjoy their T.V. It’s on morning, noon, and night. There’s a variety of shows people like to watch, but one in particular I wanna mention.

I can remember watching Spike T.V. back in the States. Familiar with that channel? Any clue what one of their most prevalent shows is? Yeah, you guessed it: Real T.V., the show made up exclusively of…well…stuff caught on tape. Pretty cool, huh? Well, let me assure you this phenomenon doesn’t stop at the border.

Nope, and it’s not without good reason. What’s so great about these kinds of shows? Well, who gives a darn what language they’re in? It’s sweet stuff caught on tape! That said, it’s one of the most popular shows on T.V. around here, and my host family and I indulge in it frequently. At first I thought it was pretty dumb. I mean, dude gets hit in the testicles by a teeter-totter. That’s not exactly high brow humor, but, yavaş yavaş (slowly but surely), as the Azerbaijanis say, I started coming around to the baseness of the jokes, and, I mean, c’mon, I ain’t that sophisticated. What’s the harm in laughing at a guy skateboarding off his roof or another dude riding a bike into a lake? It’s all in good fun.

Nonetheless, it occurred to me: Where do you think most of these videos come from? Yeah, you guessed it: The United States. I began to think, “Oh, crap. This is the impression being given to these sweet people about the U.S. of A?” And I can’t imagine what must be going through their heads. I didn’t know what to think when we’d see some guy from…wherever…riding a horse into a barn just to hear my host mother say, “Ay, Allah. Ay, Allah.” Let’s also not forget about the dude that can light his fart for an extended period of time (although he might be European. I’m not sure.).

I soon found myself embarrassed when Rustəm, my host brother, would ask me, “Is this is in America?” I’d try not to answer.

Luckily, I think the folks take it for its entertainment value, as they should. American or not, people do dumb stuff, and to be perfectly frank, if my host family’s opinion of the U.S. was based on a dude trying to do a back flip on a pogo stick, I don’t know how welcoming they’d be.

Letters from the Host Brother

8 February 2009

It’s 10:49 at night, about the time this guy hits the ol’ sack, but I just gotta elaborate, for a brief moment, about my host brother, Rustəm.

He’s a creative young lad, that Rustəm, and it comes out when we’re at the dinner table. The T.V.’s usually on, and Firuz and Aybəniz might be having their own little conversation while Hökümə might be doing a little homework and I…well…sit there I guess. Rustəm often prefers to spend his time drawing or writing random things he reads in books (An English textbook is a good example). He loves to see a picture and copy it as best he can. Then he’ll show it to me and say, “This is that,” while pointing to the picture from which he got his drawing. Of course, I’m always very impressed with his artistic ability. To be honest with you, it’s cool to see the little guy going at a drawing. It’s good for him, and fun to watch, too.

Today, I received two very special gifts from my host brother. This morning, he handed me a letter he wrote to me on the inside of a porcelain cup and saucer box. Although I had to use a dictionary to get all the words in the letter, I was touched, as you can imagine. I would share his words of wisdom, but, of course, that would be breaking brother-host brother confidentiality. And this evening, as I finished up the plan for my first English clubs, he knocked on my door and handed me another letter, as sweet as the last one.

Kids are amazing. Who gives a darn if you’re the foreigner and he’s the local and you can’t speak his language very well? None of that makes much of a difference. There’s so much you can learn about a person just by being there, by standing aside and seeing him do his thing. Dad would talk about how he’d swing by Sewanee Elementary just to watch by older brother play on the playground when he was little. I bet Dad learned a lot about his oldest son by simply looking on at eight year-old Clay, at a time in which he, like all kids, did his own thing, and I see the same in young Rustəm. The fact that he wrote me a couple letters doesn’t just illustrate how he feels about the American living in his house. It also says a lot about him, and that’s a heck of a good thing to learn.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


7 February 2009

Okay, so I’ve already told y’all about the "toy" (Or should I say "toys"?), but there’s another phenomenon related to this topic that I’d like to touch up on. As the title says, it has to do with the big electric picture box sitting in many Azerbaijani living rooms.

Do you ever watch old videos from weddings, or any old family event, for that matter? Birthdays? Holidays? First communions? Barbecues (The opening theme song from The Wonder Years comes to mind.)? You probably have, and it’s not without good reason. Old videos are fun, entertaining ways to reminisce.

Azerbaijani folk have the same idea, and this especially rings true with toys. Say company comes over for dinner. You put out the tea and candy and sit down to a word or two, but you gotta do something while the aş is being prepared. What do you do? "Oh, I know! Let’s put a toy video on the tube. Everyone loves those!" And so it goes, the video plays, and people watch, enamored by which family members showed up and what’s being served as the meal. Now, I’m not saying every toy is the same, but they tend to carry a general pattern I described in my earlier entries. People put on their Sunday best, sit at tables, eat plenty of food, dance with their arms in the air (but make sure not to smile when the camera’s on them), and a fair amount of the men put away plenty of vodka.

Although each toy may be unique to Azerbaijanis, to folks from the United States, where any given wedding can be different, thing get monotonous…fast. A friend of mine serving in a village in the rayon of Şəki was not allowed to stay at home alone with his host family’s teenage daughter, so what did they do? Well, every afternoon, he’d go guesting with his host family to another person’s house and watch…You guessed it…toy videos. This went on for six months. I also heard about another volunteer who watched a toy video in which the drive from Baku to Lənkəran, in the southeast corner of the country, literally hours away, was entirely filmed.
Let’s also not forget another phenomenon frequently discussed by me and Charlie, which also goes along with the title of this entry: Toy T.V….literally. Oh yeah, you can flip on the tube and watch Turkish toys at your heart’s content. It doesn’t matter if you know the people or not, because, well, they’re toys, and they’re totally awesome.

I won’t lie. From the perspective of us Americans, this concept doesn’t make a whole heck of a lotta sense. I asked my host father Firuz about it, and he simply said, more or less, that it simply has to do with comparing and contrasting what is, in reality, a very special event for friends and family.

Now, does that make sense to you all? Think about it. The "toy", as the Azerbaijanis call it, is the big event, the big hoopla in which two families are joined or a boy becomes a man. It’s something they really look forward to, and while they may seem monotonous to us, that might not be so for the Azerbaijanis, and I have to respect that. In fact, the significance they put on family and friends and the events that bring them together is inspiring.

What is that on the freaking roof?

5 February 2009

I figured I’d take a moment to describe an, if anything, interesting situation going on above my head.

I couldn’t help but notice one night, while I was lying in bed, a strange scratching/crawling noise coming from just above my room. Being the new guy in town in his first month, I was somewhat baffled and taken aback by such a noise, but it was clear the sound was being made by an animal of some sort. Now, if it had simply been a squirrel (Wait. Are there squirrels here? Heck, I don’t know.) racing across the roof real quick, I wouldn’t’ve bothered, but this critter, whatever it was, was aggressively making love to my roof, scratching away at it like it had something it really wanted. After about a minute and a half of this annoying raucous, I gathered all the wit I could muster, put together the pieces of the plan only a highly sophisticated Peace Corps volunteer could make, and came to a triumphant conclusion: I’ll hit the ceiling with something.

So, dim-eyed and cranky, I looked all over my room for something, anything to startle the little varmint off my roof. I looked at the peç, and, low and behold, the long pincher thing used to pick up logs caught my eye. I grabbed it, pointed it upwards, and knocked the roof silly with it. As you could expect, the rodent, frightened, changed positions to another part of the roof, where I only followed it to slam it out of its wits again…and again and again, until it was out of range of my precious ears. I then washed the black nastiness off my hands and rested in peace.
And the battle has continued.

Nope, wish I could say it was a one-time thing, but contrary to what could’ve ended with a funny little anecdote has developed into a tale of war. In fact, as I type at this very moment, the critter is continuing to scurry across my roof, doing, well, whatever it’s doing (Aybəniz, my host mother, says it has to do with gathering and eating nuts or something. Why it would do that at 11:22 at night is beyond me.), regardless of what I’d prefer.
Oh, well. I’ll do what I can, and, heck, it gives me a reason to be as tired as possible when I hit the sack at night, in hopes that no creature, whatever it is and whatever it’s doing, will disturb my slumber.

Now, I have two questions for all of you:
1.What do you think it is?
2. What should I do?

Sunday, January 25, 2009


22 January 2009

Today, I wanna talk to y’all about something that’s as important in Azerbaijan as it is anywhere. What do you think about what I mention the word “friend”? It’s not such a complicated question, really. Hopefully, what comes to mind is that person whose company you love. The one you can sit down and have a cup o’ joe with every day, talkin’ about whatever. When I was at Sewanee, Shep, Harcout, and I would hang around the frat table at McClurg dining hall and just shoot the breeze after dinner, and it’s one of the fondest memories I have of college.

About the second day I was living in Qumlaq village, I wanted to join Aybəniz to the “klub”, the community center where she works. It’s a nice little place where folks gather every so often (although I haven’t been to any events there yet). It has a big room with a piano (a bit out of tune), another room with firewood, and another small room with a couple chairs and a peç (pronounced “pech”), or stove.

She works alongside a woman named Aygün (Interesting fact: “Ay” means moon, and “gün” means “day”. “Bəniz” also means “face”. See if you can put those together.), a lovely twenty-nine year-old lady. There’s not a whole lot involved in their work. They sit in the small room with the peç and have a cup of çay or two. That’s about it. To be honest, there isn’t much else for them to do, but it’s what they get paid for. There’s also a good chance they’re up to a lot more when something’s going on there, but, nevertheless, I’m digressing.

So we chilled out there for a little while and eventually went home. Aygün went her separate way, and I asked Aybəniz if Aygün was married. She wasn’t. Although it’s wrong to stereotype, I must say that in the rayons of Azerbaijan, you don’t find a whole lotta single, working twenty-nine year-old women. After asking why she wasn’t, Aybəniz went on about how there aren’t any good men in this town. “Aygün’s an attractive, intelligent lady, and she needs a good man,” she said. I nodded in agreement and was impressed by such boldness. Clearly Aygün was a good friend of hers, and it was also clear that Aybəniz cared about her.

Alright, now let’s flash forward a few weeks. I was in my room, wood stove cracklin’, doing some exercises and trying to stay fit after spraining my ankle (I was running in the dark, nobody’s fault but mine.). Aybəniz knocked at the door and walked in, quietly asking me if the peç was going okay. She kinna paced around, and I could tell something was up. Then she spilled the beans: “Aygün kişiyə getir” (Literally “Aygün’s going to a man” or, simply, “Aygün’s gonna get married”.) I stood there and acknowledged the news, and then placed a hand on Aybəniz as she began to cry there next to me. Aybəniz went on to say that Aygün was her good, good friend, and her leaving to get married was a hard fact to face. I mean, think about it. Put yourself in that position. You’ve been working with someone for years, sitting in the same room together, talking about whatever. In other words, a friend real close to your heart is leaving your side. We know the feeling. But Aybəniz also expressed: “Aygün xoşbext olsun” (May Aygün be happy). That’s also what a friend says.

So what came of it all? Well, a week or so later, Aygün was over at my host family’s house, and I asked her, “Toy nə vaxt olacaq (When’s the toy? (You remember toy, right? Don’t even get me started.))? And she responded, “Toy olmayacaq (Ain’t gonna be no toy.).”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” I thought.

Turns out a little research was done on the “dude” she was gonna marry. Although I didn’t entirely understand the situation (I mean, c’mon. I’m an “intermediate-mid” Azerbaijani speaker. Real middle of the road here.), it seems he wasn’t too great after all. With Aybəniz also sitting there by the peç in the living/dining/Turkish-music-videos-watching room, I asked her, “That’s not too common ‘round here, is it?” and she said, “Nope.” Then I said, “But you’re different.” And, to that, I got two of the biggest grins I’ve ever seen from those two lovely, amazing women I have the privilege to know, and who’re privileged to have each other.

İyirmi yanvar

20 January 2009

Okay, so on Monday the nineteenth, I walked into the teachers’ room of the Qumlaq village school to find a big, heart-shaped bouquet of flowers. In an attempt to be the comedian, I sauntered in and said, “Ooohhh, who sent me flowers!?” My fellow teachers, who typically laugh at my jokes, no matter how bad they are, gave a pretty tame response, if one at all. It struck me as kind of weird, but after I thought for a second, the circumstances made sense, and I felt like an idiot.

Let me give you a quick Azerbaijani history lesson. Although, in 1917, Azerbaijan was proclaimed the first democratic republic in the Islamic world, it soon after, on May 28, 1920, became a Soviet Socialist Republic. In the 1930’s, the Azerbaijan S.S.R. was affected by Stalin’s purges, as thousands were killed (mainly members of the intelligentsia (who, I might add, were influenced by European ideas, rallied against poverty, ignorance, and extremism, and supported education and the emancipation of women) and other suspected opposition sympathizers).

In the 1940’s, the Azerbaijan S.S.R. was integral in the Soviet Union’s struggles against Nazi Germany, as it supplied a lot of gas and oil. Several Azerbaijani’s fought vigorously in this war, and about 400,000 died.

Policies of De-Stalinization, rapprochement, and Russification followed in the 1950’s, which led to urbanization, industrialization, and anti-religious sentiment. Although education and welfare conditions improved, the Azerbaijan S.S.R.’s economic output and productivity drastically decreased in the 1960’s, mainly because its oil industry lost much of its importance. Heydər Əliyev was then appointed as the first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan in 1969, in an effort to fix the Soviets’ structural crisis in the area, and economic conditions temporarily improved. However, he was forced to step down in 1987, when Perestroika began.

More nationalist sentiment began to emerge during this time, which was characterized by great civil unrest in the Azerbaijan S.S.R. This unrest reached the boiling point on the twentieth of January, 1990, when Soviet troops killed 132 nationalist demonstrators. Azerbaijan declared its independence in 1991, but not after a long period of ups and downs.

Ah, now do you see why I was a bit embarrassed? Schools and offices are closed on this day (which, in Azerbaijani, is “iyirmi (20) yanvar (January)”.), but it isn’t exactly a holiday. It’s a day of mourning, in which those 132 people are remembered, but, from my perspective, I look at the entire twentieth century: the government changing hands three times, thousands dying in Stalin’s purges, about 400,000 dead after the war with Nazi Germany, great civil and ethnic unrest, and 132 nationalists killed by Soviet troops. After something like that, I’d say it’s good a nation chooses to stick together, remembering its history and moving forward, and as the United States of America inaugurates a new president, I’d say it’s important that we take a hard look at past years and move forward too.

Amerikada var?

19 January 2009

Let me tell you a little somethin’ about livin’ abroad. This is the most challenging part of it, while, at the same time, it’s the most rewarding. Let me explain.

While I was living with my first host family in Ceyranbatan, I got this question a lot. “Amerikada var?” means “Do you have this in the United States?” On any given day, I could get it about everything: cows, bananas, cars, roads, hospitals, mosques, whatever. And, well, the answer is pretty easy when it comes to questions like that: Yes, we do have those in the United States, or no, we don’t have those there.

Whether or not something exists in the United States is one matter. However (And, like always, many Peace Corps volunteers can attest.), what about those “What’s life like in the United States” type questions. Yeah, those are different.

When you’re plopped down in the middle of a different life, you make great adjustments without even realizing it. The fact that I need to take off my shoes every time I enter a home and put on a pair of slippers never struck me as such a huge change because I didn’t really have time to think about it. You integrate one step at a time, being careful not to embarrass yourself. However, on any given night, when I’m laying in bed with nothing but my thoughts, I can sit back, reflect, and think, “Holy crap, if I was back home, who would give a darn if I wore slippers or not? We don’t put our bread and turkey bones on the bare table in Texas. I can sit back and cross one leg over the other in the U.S., and no one would give it a second thought.” Before I know it, my mind is blown.

So what am I getting at here? Well, what if you’re in the middle of a dialogue with someone from a different culture? This person has not been to the United States, and her only real impression of the U.S. is you. It’s easy for her to go on about her own culture because, well, you’re in it. You’re living it every day, but once you begin describing the intricacies of where you come from, things can get a little sticky: “What do you mean your mother drives to work every day?” “You can buy what at the grocery store?” “Coffee shops?” “How many rooms do you have in your house?”

These are just a few examples, and explaining yourself ain’t always easy. Most of all, you don’t want to leave a false impression, but how can you do that when you’re describing to a person that lives in a village with muddy roads that all the roads in your “village” are asphalt? How do you tell people that teenagers in your community go to a high school in an adjacent town with two stories, a huge gymnasium, a library, and a football stadium? I had a gentleman tell me the other day that my village was good and his wasn’t. “Well, no” I thought, “That isn’t it at all. It’s just different.” And that’s the truth.

And here’s the end-all question that has put many a volunteer in an awkward situation: “How much money does your brother make?” My school director asked me that (more than once), because he knows that my brother, Clay, is a teacher. “I don’t know” is my answer, and I stick to it. To be honest, I don’t know how much he makes, and don’t care to, and we Americans also tend to believe that money is a taboo subject to bring up, especially with folks we don’t know real well. But let’s put ourselves in their shoes. Imagine a situation in…whatever country…in which one person makes two grand a month, but his neighbor makes three grand a month. That’s a heck of a difference. It would give one good reason to ask around, seeing where the good jobs are. I know that making a comparison in salary between my director, who works in a school with wood stoves in each classroom and sheep wondering around in front, and my brother, who works at a private school in Chattanooga, would be futile, but I don’t blame the man for asking. I just have to play it cool, being careful not to leave them with the wrong idea. A lady who speaks good English told me, “Our lives can be difficult here, but in America, you make much money.” Okay, I admit that contrasts may exist in salaries, but that’s not to say that two working class parents in Wimberley, Texas, making minimum wage and trying to raise their three kids, live an “easy” life.

So how do you answer these cross-cultural inquiries? Well, you tell ‘em like it is, no matter how hard that may be. It doesn’t help to beat around the bush, and, to be perfectly honest, that’s why Peace Corps sends U.S. citizens all over the world: to give people an understanding of America. For me, sitting down with local folk and verbally painting a picture of where I come from is beautiful. It gives me great pleasure to describe my hometown to Firuz and Aybəniz, and see their heads slowly nod up and down. Whether folks leave your side saying, “Wow, America sounds cool” or “Good gracious, what a weird place he comes from,” you did what you should do, and you should keep doing it as best you can.

Brother and Sister

17 January 2009

How many of you can relate to this concept? I know I can. My sister Catherine Grace is four years older than I am, and we have many memories growing up together.

Well, these themes don’t stop at the border. In fact (And every Peace Corps Azerbaijan crony can agree.), family is a prime topic of conversation around here. They wanna know about your parents and grandparents, how many brothers and sisters you have, what they do, whether they’re married and have children or not, and so on and so forth. They’re very interested in that, and they’re especially pleased to see pictures. Just today, I brought a picture of my parents and me to a friend’s house, and the picture was passed around to everybody. Everyone made sure to give his or her input about who I looked like (Some said Mom, and some said Dad, which is interesting.).

But in this entry, I’m not specifically talking about my family. What I wanna get at is my host family, in particular, Hökümə, my host sister, and Rustam, my host brother. The sister is a teenager, and the brother is about nine. Now, think about that for a second. What’s the dynamic that comes to mind when you think about the relationship between a teenage sister and a kid brother?

Well, I had my own preconceptions, too, seeing as I am a kid brother and, at one time, was nine when my sister was thirteen. However, those preconceptions were blown away when I saw how these two got along. They do everything together. They’re like best friends. So far, one of my most vivid memories occurred on a snowy day. We were having lunch after school, and right when the two were done eating, they raced outside and immediately started playing in the snow together. It was beautiful, really, and I’m personally amazed at how two young people spend their free time here. I mean, it’s a little village that’s pretty dark at night, not a street light to be found, so what do they do on the weekends? Well, they stay at home. A Friday night is simply a night to stick around the house and relax, and Saturday and Sunday are the same way. There’s no movie theater to go to, no sleepovers like we have in the States. Home is where it all happens, and, with this being the case, I’d say it’s a pretty darn good thing these two get along so well. Nonetheless, it’s cool to see.

Changing Places

17 January 2009

Well, it appears I’ve been quite lacking in my web logging lately. I mean, really lacking. What happened? I can’t even give a straight answer, but what I can give is a sincere apology to all my dedicated readers (Yes, all four of you). Sorry ‘bout that.

This entry concerns a pretty prevalent theme in my life, and, to be honest, a common theme among many Americans. It’s about moving from one place to another. I know many of you have been there and done that. I, for one, began moving from when I was two, going from Tennessee, where I was born, to Texas, with my family. Since then, we haven’t spent more than five years anywhere. Although moving isn’t always fun (You gotta pack everything up, say your goodbyes, then unload everything again.), I now feel (And I think other members of my family can agree.) that everywhere we’ve lived brings back such specific, vivid memories that we all share.

And who recognizes the aspects of going to a new place better than a Peace Corps volunteer? That’s not to say that we’re experts, but we’re all in the same boat in that we’ve all packed our bags and moved far away from home. And the moving doesn’t stop in just one place, either. Nope, sure doesn’t. You see, the last, longer entry I wrote was from Ceyranbatan, but I don’t live there anymore.

Ceyranbatan was where I was living for training, and now that training’s over (It’s actually been over for a bout five weeks.), I’ve packed up and moved to Qumlaq village, Oğuz. I wrote about this place before, and it’s great to finally be living here. Training can be a pretty taxing time. You got a lot on your plate, and it’s like a big breath of fresh, mountain air (literally) to be settled and working at my site of service.

But it’s not like I left Ceyranbatan and then put it out of mind. Luckily, my good neighbor from Ceyranbatan, Charlie Djordjevic, lives in the same rayon as I. Our memories of training will always be with us, like the time Charlie was locked out of his house by a certain unnamed grandmother and came to my host family’s place for kabobs, or when my “host uncle” randomly took me and Charlie for a drive to a wedding palace in Sumgait, and a huge feast magically showed up while we were sitting in some gentleman’s (who I guess lived at the wedding palace?) apartment area, or when we showed the kids at the local school how to play touch football. We left Ceyranbatan, optimistic about where we were going, with great memories, and, hey, that’s how it outta be. If I’ve learned anything in Peace Corps (and in my life in general), it’s that packing up and heading to a new place shouldn’t be something you dread, even though it can be a pain. It wasn’t fun loading all my stuff into a marshrutka (Remember what those are?), talking the driver into not charging us extra, and hauling it to Oğuz, but now I’m here, and it’s great. And even if you’re not too fond of where you’re going, it makes where you came from mean that much more. As much as my family liked living in Maryland, it still meant a lot to us to move back to Texas, where we’d lived most of my life. Things like this are important to remember when you’ve made a two-year commitment to live in a foreign place. There are good days and not as good days, but we can all count on the fact that we will go back eventually. Maybe home will mean more to us when it’s all over. And let’s be honest; that wouldn’t be a bad thing.