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.