Thursday, November 4, 2010

We wanna hold your hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 30, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is going to be great.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

One of us

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Project: English Resource Room

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

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

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

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

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

You can get more details at the project website:

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

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

That's not your glass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.B.L.E. Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 24, 2010

We've gotten used to you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

What's all that scratching?

7 July 2010

Man, it’s hot, and I don’t even live in the hotter, considerably flatter part of Azerbaijan. Here in the rayon of Oğuz, we’re right by the mountains and rivers, a little ways uphill from the steamy cities of Mingechevir and Ujar, to name a couple. But still, I can’t deny the fact that I’m sweating my ass off at every corner, except for my bedroom here in the house, with the fan on high, blowing against the back of my Tennessee Titans shirt (You didn’t know I was a fan. Did you?). I was just in class with one ten year old girl who I’d suspect was thinking, the whole, you know, ten minutes we could stand to be in the classroom, “When the heck are we leaving?” We jammed out way early because her cousin was left alone at her house. Azerbaijani’s like to stay close to their guests. None of us wept at the change of plans.

But it’s a small price to pay for summer vacation. I mean, I’m from central Texas, where July days surpass a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. I’d still run and sweat in the midday sun along the hills of Sierra West and not give it a thought. To be honest, I kinna liked it, and I still don’t mind it too much around here. Let’s consider the alternative, or opposite, if you will:

Would you rather…

-Walk around on a July day, your wet t-shirt sticking to your back, dying to get in the air conditioning?


-Freeze your butt off in the January coldness, carrying the dishes out to the yard faucet, your hands getting numb from the icy water?

Now, don’t cheat. Human nature dictates you’ll always choose what you’re not in now. At first glance, plenty of you would choose the latter. However, if you were in a bustling crowd of polka dancers in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on Groundhog Day, you’d choose the former (“Better put on your booties, ‘cause it’s cold out there today.”). The truth is we naturally want what we don’t have. That’s why you get a crush on that girl who used to like you. Okay, this entry needs more direction.

As if the sweltering heat weren’t enough, these peaceful days are disrupted, from time to time, by mysterious scratching noises coming from, literally, inside the desk in my room. I don’t know what they are, and I can’t see a trace of evidence. All I know is that if I pound on the top of the table like this: BOOM! (Sorry, you couldn’t actually see or hear that.), the scratching stops for a minute and starts back up again. It’s like an invisible man is clipping and scraping out his toenails within the thin, wooden piece of plywood that supports my computer and nearly empty can of Nescafe. It’s annoying and concerning. What the hell is it? Any ideas? Termites? Ants? Evil spirits? Flesh eating bacteria? The rotting wood? Though this isn’t a horribly dire concern, knowing would be nice, and I’d appreciate your help.

Then again, I could just ask my landlord.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


24 June 2010

The time has come…again, and thank heavens! I personally can’t get enough of summer vacation. The weather’s hot. The days are long, and there’s no school. I feel like a kid again. You know what I mean? That…just…summer feeling you get, the kind that, I imagine, fades away when you’re into your working years, having to toil away during the hot months while the young ones play. Does this happen. Well, in any case, I can, at least for a little while longer, relish in summer bliss. It’s not bad.

Really, I’m working a little bit. Honestly it’s not really the lack of work I like so much about summer; it’s just the freedom. I can do as I please. I’m finally making the time to apply for a grant for an English resource room and girls’ computer room. I’m hoping to get a health project going. I got to play softball in Mingechevir. Whoa! That hadn’t happened yet, and what a pleasure it was, not just to play myself but to watch the Azerbaijanis go at it. They were good. They’ve learned well.

My new house also suits me, and why wouldn’t it? It’s my own place with the landlord across the street. It’s got a fridge and a stove on the porch. I’m not sure how it happened, but I’m glad to have a place like this, despite how late in the game it might be. Doesn’t change the fact that I’m comfortable now. Let’s hope it stays that way ‘till December.

And let’s hope all our summers go along nicely. Enjoy yourselves. Take care.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Georgia and Azerbaijan with Mom and Dad

20 May 2010

You can’t help but smile when the pieces fall into place, when you plan ahead, hoping it’ll turn out okay, and it does. Meeting Mom and Dad in Tbilisi and showing them around Azerbaijan made me happy, as it was the first time for either of them to visit me in a foreign country.

At about 2:45 in the morning on the twelfth, they flew into the Tbilisi airport, and we cruised, in the middle of the night, to our guesthouse. After a long, five-hour slumber, we got up and toured the city with the one free day we had there. It went well, although Tbilisi’s winding streets took some getting used to. We enjoyed its natural and manmade beauty, it’s statues, walls, and churches built on hillsides. I thought Mom and Dad would enjoy Georgia’s strong Orthodox tradition, to which it seems about everyone is devoted. When we entered Trinity Cathedral, with its gold top and beautiful setting on a hill, we sat and watched in wonder as countless people paced through the sanctuary and kissed every icon. Later that day, we went to the same cathedral and enjoyed evening Eucharist. It was beautiful, with several people not only in the congregation, but also participating in the service. Mom and Dad pointed out how many participants, whether they be priests, deacons, or acolytes, would take part for a while, then fall out to talk with their friends outside or do something else. It was like there was a perpetual turnover during the service, which was interesting.

We enjoyed some ajaruli xajapuri (a large crater of fresh bread, melted butter, cheese, and a raw egg…so delicious) and Netakhtari beer that afternoon. Then, after church, with all three of us pretty tired at the end of the day, we went to a restaurant and had some good, red, Seperavi wine, more xajapuri, bread, pork kabobs, and cha cha. Then we crashed.

We traveled for about half of the next day, as we jammed out of the guesthouse early and took a taxi to the Lagodekhi-Balakən border. Our driver drove efficiently, and we got to the border in good time. Crossing the border went fine for all of us, and we were soon off on a Zaqatala marşrutka, where we met a nice Dutch man who shared a taxi with us from Zaqatala to Şəki, where we’d be staying that night.

We were all pleased with the Karvan Saray Hotel, a beautiful, historic place with interesting, almost chamber-esque rooms and a gorgeous outdoor restaurant. Shortly after arriving there, we enjoyed lunch at that lovely restaurant, and, while Mom and Dad napped a little, I changed some money, bought some sweets for us, and we had tea in out room as Mom and Dad were waking back up. We took advantage of the cool evening to see the Xan Saray, a fascinating old palace near the top of the city, and then we rolled back into our quarters to enjoy some sweet Azerbaijani wine, cheese, and bread for dinner. The light dinner was nice, but I managed, for one reason or another, to get deathly ill in the middle of the night. Who knows what it was from.

There was no rest for the weary, though, because we left in a taxi at about seven the next morning to arrive in Qumlaq before school started. We got there in good time and had an excellent time in class. Mom and Dad loved the school, teachers, and students, and that made me really happy. It was really just great for them to see the actual service I and so many other peace Corps volunteers are doing in this country, and the day also ended well with a lovely visit to Firuz’s house, where I used to live. He and his family were very nice to us, and we got to enjoy some aş, one of my favorite Azerbaijani dishes. The family also showed us around their garden, which was especially interesting for Mom and Dad, who enjoy gardening themselves.

I was totally spent at the end of the day, and we all crashed in good time. We had a pretty leisurely morning the next day and left around noon to meet Charlie at a restaurant in Oğuz. I was glad they finally got to meet. After a nice lunch, we walked around town, bought a few goods for my new house, toured the town a bit, and visited Charlie’s host family. Mom, Dad, and I then went back to the village and cleaned ourselves up for another dinner party at Nərgiz, a student of mine’s, family’s house. This family and I have been good friends for a while, and it was awesome for Mom and Dad to meet them. Mom and I got to watch Nərgiz’s mother, Mrs. Qaratel, make a cake, and Mom even got to help the ladies prepare grape leaf dolma. Dad was also taken to see the family’s huge garden. We ate our hearts out, and then some, and I snapped a picture of my mother carrying one of the plates of aş.

I must say Dad also established a friendly connection with Nərgiz’s father, Mr. Yaşar, whom Dad described as very Texan-like. I could see that. We talked pretty late into the evening, and it was no doubt the ideal ending to Mom and Dad’s village experience (especially walking back to the house in the pitch black dark). With good reason, they seemed to enjoy the village most of all.

The next day, we left early (again) to Baku on the bus (Nərgiz even joined us because she was on her way to school.), and Mom and Dad got to see the beautiful scenery along the way. We got to Baku in time to check into the hotel and put our things in our rooms (Charlie was also joining us.). Then we headed out to Ceyranbatan to spend the evening with my old host family there. That was a good time, too. We sat out in the yard, ate delicious lamb kabobs and dolma, got to see the beautiful new fruit trees they were planting, and Mom and Dad basically got to hear over and over again how this host family made sure their home was a comfortable place for me to stay (which it was). A few vodka shots and a cup of çay or two later, we headed back, again tired, to our hotel.

The next day, we had to take care of some travel business. Mom and Dad wanted to fly out of Baku instead of Tbilisi, so they wouldn’t have to travel all the way back to Tbilisi by themselves and figure out what to do there before their flight left. We knew we had to go to the Turkish Airlines office, but we didn’t exactly know where it was. We had the address, but that was only kind of helpful. Charlie ended up calling Ceyhun, our Safety and Security Officer, to find out where it was, and we eventually found it. Though it took a while, Mom and Dad’s flight arrangements were changed, and we got to enjoy some extra time together.

Mom, Dad, and I spent the afternoon checking out the Old City and the many parks that lie around there. They loved this area of Baku, and even I realized, at that time, how beautiful it is. We later met Charlie and had Communion in Mom and Dad’s hotel room, which was Mom’s idea, and a good one at that. Then Charlie hosted us to Indian food at Adam’s, and we had dessert at Café Caramel and walked along the Boulevard, by the Caspian, which was packed with people, before retiring to our hotel rooms. It was another great ending to another wonderful day.

On this final day, we took advantage of the hotel’s free breakfast and visited the Peace Corps office. It was great for Mom and Dad to visit with other volunteers and the staff, including Flora, my Program Manager. We then headed out, had lunch at a Turkish joint, and visited the Old City again to see the Maiden Tower and Şirvan Şah’s Palace. Charlie and I also enjoyed the Palace, ‘cause we hadn’t seen it before, and it was again great to spend time in a part of the city we didn’t know very well. We also headed up to Martyr’s Lane to see the memorials to those who were killed on January twentieth, 1990, and the eternal flame, which, unfortunately, appeared to be out, due to the wind (Baku is the “City of Winds”, after all.). Mom and Dad were also fascinated by an old, beat up Lenin Museum, which, judging by the smell, didn’t appear to derive much respect from the populace. It’s also just a creepy place, with Lenin’s big, protruding head on one of the walls and Stalin shaking hands with a worker on another.

After that, we enjoyed an American-style dinner at Sunset Café and eventually made our way back to the hotel, as Mom and Dad would have to get up in the middle of the night to catch a taxi to the airport. I got up with them at about two thirty and saw them off, which was a sad, albeit sleepy moment.

But what an awesome time it was, as I just relished in being able to show Mom and Dad around Azerbaijan for that period of time. Being the curious, adventurous folks they are, I really enjoyed showing them the ins and outs of where I’ve been living for over a year.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Writing Olympics

Hey, everybody. I'm again posting an advertisement for a Peace Corps project, but this is also one I really support and appreciate. It's called the Writing Olympics.

In a nutshell, the Writing Olympics is an annual English writing competition for high school and university students throughout the Caucasus. It allows young people to express themselves freely and creatively. In our experiences in the Azerbaijani schools, we can't help but notice a lack of opportunity for personal expression. So much emphasis is put on memorizing the facts for university entrance exams that things like creative writing are often overlooked. For this reason, it's always a pleasure to meet and see Azerbaijani students being creative in any way.

Every year, volunteers at their own schools and organizations arrange the time and place for students to write on a few given topics. Their entries are then submitted, and the more exceptional essays move on to greater, international competitions.

The Writing Olympics has been going on here for years, and it's volunteer leaders in Azerbaijan are trying to expand it, particularly by recognizing the award winners. Peace Corps is going to invite these students for a ceremony in which they'll receive books, dictionaries, certificates, and more, and guest speakers from Peace Corps, AccessBank, and the U.S.-Educated Azerbaijani Alumni Association will also participate.

Aaron McKean and Kim Joyce, the volunteers in charge of Writing Olympics this year, are asking for contributions from willing donors for this event. You can get more information from this post on Aaron's web log.

If you're interested in donating towards this cause, here is the link to the Writing Olympics' Peace Corps Partnership web page. Thanks a lot. Take care.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Inerested in environmental issues?

Hey, everybody. Some volunteers in the city of Mingechevir are raising money for an environmental event. My friend Alexis works hard to address environmental issues in Azerbaijan via our environmental committee, and this particular event will include an environmentally themed art contest, mural, city clean up, and more. If you're interested in contributing to this event, check out this web page:

Adios, and thank you.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Will you take me to America?

13 March 2010

I’m not sure what I was expecting before I came to Azerbaijan. Well, I mean, considering the fact that I didn’t know much of anything about Azerbaijan before arriving, I guess I was setting myself up for anything, and part of that "anything" would be the set catalogue of questions many people, especially dudes, like to ask the foreigner.

Let me elaborate on one. Can you guess what it is? Wow, you’re good. Yes, it’s true. I come from America, the land of chocolate telephone poles and golden mailboxes. Opportunities out the gonads. I mean, geez, upon getting off the boat on American soil, you got guys swarming you, begging you to take their high-paying, perk-filled jobs. No wonder people wanna be taken to the Land of the Free, and what better escort than the Peace Corps volunteer who makes two hundred fifty bucks a month.

Alright, now that that stream of sarcasm is over, let me just say that this question, "Will you take to me to America?" would be fine if we were asked it, you know, like once a month, but that’s not the case. Heck, my landlord asks me it all the time, and even after repeated "no’s", he keeps asking. I’m not sure why.

First off, I’d like to know why you want to go to America. What would you do there? What would you see? Whom would you meet? How’s your English these days? Who's gonna look after you (An Azerbaijani friend of mine and Charlie's recently sent his wife to Canada to care for hit son who's studying there.)? It doesn’t look like you’re starving here, so what’s the big hurry?
Then I’ve gotten another response to my own questions regarding their desire to go to America: "I’ll ‘receive’ a wife there."

Um, yeah, that’s probably not going to happen. I can see you now, making friends and looking in your Azerbaijani/English dictionary and saying "I’d like to receive a wife." Wonder how that’d go over. It might make you the life of the party, with all the lovely ladies lining up like you’re at the "woman bazaar", but, then again, maybe not.

My next question is this: How are you going to get there? This is where my role in getting them to the U.S.A. comes in. In order to immigrate to another country, you gotta go to the embassy yourself and apply for a visa. If you qualify and receive one, you can buy your plane ticket and go. So where exactly do I come in in getting you to the United States? What, do you think I have visas in my back pocket? They don’t give us "extras".

"You know, you can just tell them I’m your guest."

"No, I can’t do that."

"Why not?"

"Because that’s not how it works."


"Because it’s the law."

"No, come on. Just tell them I’m your guest and take me to America."


"Why are you angry?"

Ha ha. Yes, that was just a random example of how the conversation might go, and I’m not Azerbaijani, so what kind of perspective do I have? I can say, though, that I live here, and I’m pleased by the curiosity people around here have about foreign lands. There’s a good chance you might be talking to a gentleman from Oğuz who’s never left the rayon, or another guy who remembers his military service in Siberia of wherever during the Soviet era and wants to wonder around the globe again. It does someone good to go somewhere else, wherever it may be, and I and many other volunteers can say that some of the best folks in this country are the ones that did the F.L.E.X. program, where you study for a year at a U.S. high school. They come home with all kinds of wisdom and optimism, and they’re a big help.

So, despite my seemingly cathartic portrayal of the lovely conversations I have with the local crowd, I still have to accept that where I am just ain’t America. One’s desire to "be taken to the U.S." may just be an expression of curiosity for a place he’s only seen on T.V. When you look at it that way, it seems pretty normal.

Some things you just have to accept as part of being here, as something you can’t fight or resist. You’re in a different place, and you’re a foreigner. If you try to contort it to fit your needs, you’ll lose.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

International Women's Day

9 March 2010

Alright, anyone who calls this an "international" holiday has clearly never been to the United States, as I hadn’t ever heard of this holiday before coming here, though I must admit it’s on my Peanuts one a day calendar for March eighth. But when I mentioned it to Mom the other day, she also said she hadn’t heard of it, but it’s no big deal. It’s really just a day when the men and boys show some appreciation for the women in their lives, which is cool.

I mean, I just gotta go into some detail here, ‘cause it’s pretty darn cute, about what some of the people do. You kinna feel like you’re going back a few decades. Either that, or the childish giggling you hear from the ninth grade girls sorta makes them seem more like fifth graders, but it’s a different place, here in Azerbaijan, and that’s fine.

Anyway, what am I talking about here? Oh yeah, Women’s Day. Well, one thing I observed as I was drinking my coffee and reading the Monitor last Friday, were the boys from a ninth grade class coming into the back room of the snack bar, where people have their çay, and leaving tea, cake, and presents for the girls. After they left, the girls came in with a teacher and enjoyed what the boys had left. It was adorable. I sat down with them as they sipped from their glasses and laughed giddily at the little noise making stuffed animals their classmates gave them. Their amusement tickled me to death. I mean, I was talking with Mom on Sunday afternoon, and I wondered what it would’ve been like with ninth graders in the U.S. What would they have been doing? How would they celebrate this holiday? I’m not really sure. We have Mother’s Day, but that’s just for moms. How would a bunch of fifteen year olds at, say, Wimberley High School in Texas do this? I really don’t know, but it makes me think.

It’s also nice to see boys, girls, men, and women interacting in such a way in a culture where gender relations are different than in the United States. When I see them getting along like this, it reminds me that Azerbaijanis are people just like Americans or anybody else. The "rules" might be different, but a young man might still be nervous about giving a piece of cake to a classmate, or a girl might anxiously look at a little gift and think, "Oh, that boy’s cute. I wonder if he gave me this." Can you avoid thinking like that, really? I don’t think so. Heck, at twenty-four I even still feel like a teenager sometimes.

So as I finish up this short entry at 3:05 in the morning I still contemplate those emotions, those thoughts and feelings, that we all relate to, giving some legitimacy to every cheesy holiday that makes us go out of our routine to give a Valentine to the girl we like, stand under mistletoe with someone we know likes us, or leave tea, cake, and presents for girls that deserve some appreciation. I’m okay with that.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Little Ones

17 January 2010

I’ve come to realize that 2:48 in the morning is the best time to write a web log entry. Why? I don’t know. I just felt like saying that, since it is, in fact, that late.

So I hope everyone’s well, as we ease, slowly but surely, out of the holidays. It’s not exactly a good feeling to step into work the first day after a break, but before you know it, you’re in the groove, and you don’t even think about it anymore. Then again, if you have a job like Dad’s, and your work is Christmas, you may even forget, or not give credit to, the fact that the past holidays included rest and relaxation, for some at least.

I, for one, am getting into the swing of things okay, like the rest of the volunteers, and I’ve recently been thinking about something I’ve just gotta elaborate on.

Kids are great. I mean, seriously, nothing brightens your day like the smiling face of a seven year old. They’re amused by things you’re either too sophisticated or embarrassed to be amused by, and you can’t help but sit back and laugh as they talk amongst themselves. That’s, at least, what I do, most of the time, in a daily, thirty minute class frequented by two fifth graders. These two girls are so hilarious that it doesn’t even matter how bad my day’s been up to that point. They fix everything, and I can never repay them for it, except maybe teach them a little English.

First off, they typically show up about a half hour early, while I’m teaching another class. They’ll knock on the door, ask if they can come in, and about ten minutes after I tell them no, they come knocking again, then I tell them no again, and so on. Sometimes, I let them come in and sit during the other class, but they often occupy themselves with other things. For example, one day they started playing chess with their little travel kit. On other days, they’ll sit for a few minutes, then get up and run in and out of the classroom (for some reason), which doesn’t bother the current class at all.

When their time rolls around, we pick and choose what we’re going to do that day. It doesn’t matter so much what we do, because they’re pretty much down for anything. Nowadays, they’re really into “How do you spell…?” where they ask each other what letters make up each word. What’s great about letting them do something like this, where just the two of them are involved, is that they start arguing with each other about…whatever…and instead of straightening them out (which might not work anyway), I just stand back and watch things unfold. Clearly they’re debating some very big issues, and I don’t wanna get caught in the middle of it. Plus it’s funny, and I need humor in my life.

And despite the amusement I derive from teaching these two, everyone also knows that little kids learn languages better than anyone else, and Fidan and Mələk are no exception. It’s just great to see minds at work, especially at their age, and to see them try so ardently. Makes teaching a pleasure.

Now, my brother’s wife, Sara, is pregnant. Although it may be known by now what gender the baby will be, I, in my unknowing state, could care less if it’s a boy or girl. If it’s a boy, great. We can have uncle-nephew bonding time. But, judging by my experience in Azerbaijan, a girl would be great, too. Perhaps I could teach her and a friend Azerbaijani, and live it all over again.

Pray for those in Haiti.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Teachers' Meetings

11 January 2010

I’m bringing up this topic more, I think, because I simply feel like writing after a nice dinner at a friend’s house. Especially on rougher days, going "guesting", as we say, at someone’s home can really brighten things up. Not that today was bad. I just felt like saying that.

The semester started out well today. I had three classes with a couple teachers, one of which, Mrs. Ruziya, is a nice, young, woman with whom I’ve barely started out. The administration at my school suggested I start working with a couple young teachers to help them along, and I’m glad to be doing it. They’re nice and appreciative, and we can get some work done.

I had three classes today, although I was supposed to have four, but one was cancelled due to the teachers’ meeting at noon, which I’ll talk about in a minute. They were fine. I asked the students about what they did for New Year’s and where they spent it. Most said they were at home, like many Azerbaijanis, and I wouldn’t’ve minded that myself, had I been able to stay in Qumlaq and not had a meeting in Baku on December thirty-first.

The last class I taught with Mrs. Ruziya today was a "two-in-one", which are always fun. Sometimes, a teacher is ill or just can’t come to class for whatever reason, so they put class ‘A’ and class ‘B’ together at one time. Seeing as you’re with a teacher that doesn’t normally teach the "other half" of the class (And you yourself may not normally teach that other half, either.), an interesting lesson ensues. The extra kids may not have a clue what you’re talking about, which either results in you explaining, perhaps futilely, the material or just going on without them. I mean, the former is probably better, but what are you gonna do with thirty students, half on one page, the other half on another, in one space, not to mention with a teacher that isn’t used to teaching them?

Another thing that gets me are these kids that kinna "show up" every now and then. I may not have seen a young man for two weeks, and then, boom, there he is again, strapped in and ready to learn. I’ve even had my primary counterpart, Mrs. Adilə, call on a kid and ask, "Who are you?" since he’s only around once in a blue moon, or may have only showed up one time ever. It’s this lax stance toward education that gets me when I think about it. When I picture myself growing up, I can’t imagine being in a school where kids just kinna "come and go", or lessons get rescheduled due to…whatever…and I end up finishing the day a class short because I didn’t know. But like most things in life, I’ve adapted to it, as all folks must do, and it’s become "normal" for me. Why should I complain, anyway? This isn’t America. This isn’t the American education system (which has issues too, eh?). I come from one place that does its thing and now live in another place that does another thing. And while I may stop, think, and throw a fit about how different it can be here, I’m not gonna be so ridiculous as to declare one thing "bad" and the other thing "good". I gotta live in the context of my situation. I gotta accept it and provide what I can. This isn’t a fatalistic, "Oh well, I tried" attitude, either. I’m just saying you gotta understand where you are.

And one part of Azerbaijani education, which you got everywhere else, too, are teachers’ meetings. Yep, they don’t skip out on those, either, though I’m not always a full participant. In fact, I’m never a full participant, because, a lot of the time, I don’t know what they’re talking about. I just awkwardly sit there, with a sincere look on my face, nodding when I think something important’s been said. Though I can speak conversational Azerbaijani okay, I can’t understand "meeting Azerbaijani" much at all, which might explain why I left today’s get together early.

Basically, what happens is all the teachers gather in the teachers’ room. Some chairs get moved into the center of the room to accommodate everybody. When everyone’s seated, the director comes in, and when he enters the room, all the teachers lift their rumps out of their chairs and kinna rearrange themselves slightly, out of respect. This may sound kinna weird, but you may know what I mean if you saw it, and I know every Peace Corps volunteer is familiar with this kind of "respectful rump rearranging", or "R.R.R." for short.

As far as what happens next, your guess is as good as mine. Today, I think Fəxrəddin Müəllimi (our director) was talking about the results of recent state testing. Seeing as this had just about nothing to do with me, I left before everyone else, which I don’t regret too much (In fact, I’d say I regret not leaving earlier.). One day Charlie went to a teachers’ meeting, and after he left, I asked him, "How was it?" and he said, "I learned we’re no longer supposed to grade in pencil." I’m sure he was relieved.

I don’t know. I guess this just kinna goes back to the differences between two places. Number one, there’s a language barrier. Number two, they’re talking about stuff that doesn’t apply to me so much. And yet, I still feel I should be there. You know, I wanna be part of the group. And even though I cut out early today, at least I got to check it out. Perhaps that’s the moral of this story. Check it out. Check it all out. You never know what you may see.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Christmas in Tbilisi

10 January 2009

I’m digging on the quietness of twelve seventeen in the morning on January tenth, two thousand ten (It is a new year, isn’t it?). Well, I guess the rumbling of the radiator in the corner is the only other noise besides the sound of my typing, but at least the other noises that exist on a piece of property with six people are yoxdur (nonexistent) at the moment. Like I said, I’m digging it.

Tonight, I’m gonna talk to y’all about a little trip I took with Charlie these last few days. The title of this entry says it all, and, I must say, it was a kick ass trip. Couldn’t’ve asked for anything more out of about forty-eight hours in the capital of Georgia, and let me tell you why.

I met Charlie at the Oğuz bus station at about eight o’clock on the morning of the sixth. It was a cold day, and we were glad to be in the heated marşrutka headed for Şəki at eight fifteen. Upon arriving in our neighboring rayon, we immediately hopped on another marşrutka bound for the beautiful (and sexy) rayon of Zaqatala, which is just a couple rayons over from Georgia. We ran into a bit of turbulence at the Zaqatala bus station, mainly due to our own stupidity. When we got there, I quickly asked the dispatcher how we could get to Tbilisi. He told me we had to go to Balakən, the next rayon over. No problem, I thought, and we went over to the Balakən van and saved our places with our sleeping bags (totally legit). Then we went to a nearby store and grabbed a snack or two for the road, but once we got back to the bus station, the van was leaving, full, and I angrily banged on the driver’s side window and asked where our sleeping bags were. The driver didn’t stop or open the window and just pointed behind him (which pissed me off), and, lo and behold, our sleeping bags were sitting there on the sidewalk in front of where the van was parked. What a bummer. Luckily, these marşrutkas leave frequently, so we simply saved a couple spots (with our sleeping bags, again. Still totally legit.) on the next van and went and had a pot of tea at a çayxana (You see where this is going.). Surely they wouldn’t leave without us again. Well, yeah, we clearly didn’t learn our lesson the first time because the damn sleeping bags were sitting on the sidewalk again, and we were left behind again. Oh, how foolish of us. The third time was a charm, though, ‘cause we simply sat on the van and didn’t move once the next one came around. A few minutes later, we were in Balakən, a rayon, up ‘till now, seldom frequented by Peace Corps volunteers, quite beautiful, if I may say so myself.

We took out some money in town and were soon at the border, which we passed through easily. This was the third time we’d done this, and we’re still amused by the contrast between the Azerbaijani and Georgian border patrols. On the Azerbaijani side, men (and boys) in military garb, hoisting large guns and smoking cigarettes, take a look at your passport, don’t check your baggage, and let you though at their leisure. The Georgian side is a bit more, eh, organized. We all stand in line, the officer quickly stamps our passport while sitting next to a fancy computer with a camera we have to look at for identification, and our bags get scanned by some high dollar machine from Japan. We quickly were through the border and haggling with the Azerbaijani-speaking cab drivers about rides to the town of Lagodekhi (the first rayon you hit in Georgia).

Once we got in town, we began deliberating over how we’d get to Tbilisi, which is about two hours away (depending on how fast you drive). We initially thought to take a marşrutka, which was just seven Lari (the Georgian currency), but we were discouraged because we wanted to get to the city as quickly as we could and the van wouldn’t be leaving for another forty minutes. We then discussed the possibility of taking a taxi to Tbilisi with nearby cab drivers who surrounded us as if we could restore sight to the blind. We cut one driver down to a decent price (thanks for Charlie’s Russian skills), but after we put our bags in the trunk, he was in no hurry to leave. I suppose he was waiting for more passengers to come along so the trip would be more worth his while. Can’t blame him, but we eventually decided, after waiting a little while, that we might as well take the marşrutka, and that’s what we did. And before the marşrutka headed out of Lagodekhi, we had the good fortune of meeting an adorable, sweet, girl who was born in…(cough)…the nation just below Georgia. Her name was Christiana, and she could speak five languages, including Polish (I couldn’t even tell you what Polish sounds like.). She was excited to meet handsome, charming Americans like us, and helped us with purchasing a bag of chips at the store. You never know who you might come across.

The drive from Lagodekhi to Tbilisi was pretty awesome, if anything, because we got an intimate glimpse of the rayons of another country (And I’ve come to realize, also, that everything looks cooler if you’re listening to Dark Side of the Moon while viewing it.). We got into Tbilisi at about five or so, and used the cell phones of two kind gentleman before finally meeting our CouchSurfer, Vasi, near her apartment right next to Vake park. Now let me tell you about Vasi. Oh yeah, and if you’re not familiar with CouchSurfing, it’s a global network of individuals that willingly host travelers for free in their homes. Pretty sweet. Anyway, our hostess, Vasi, is a twenty-six year old badass who works for International Orthodox Christian Charities. Yep, we got extra lucky this time around. We came to Tbilisi to check out Orthodox Christmas, and our CouchSurfer just so happened to be a committed Serbian Orthodox Christian, and a sweetheart at that. She took us in, was very pleased with the wine we bought her, and provided us with hot showers when we desired (hell yes).

Shortly after putting our stuff down, Vasi walked with us down the road and showed us where we could find something to eat. She eventually returned to her apartment (It was cold.), and we soon found a little eatery, where we ordered up a couple beers and some cheese and bean xajipuri. As we were sitting there, eating and shooting the breeze, a gentleman, who spoke great English, asked us where we were from. The guy’s name was Shalva, and he’d lived in Atlanta for a number of years. He was a heck of a nice guy, so nice that he bought us dinner (more than once). He was also friends with the president of Caucasus University in Tbilisi, and he randomly picked me up from a restaurant one night and drove me to his office so I could meet him. We ended up seeing Shalva a few more times during our stay in the city.

After dinner, we chilled in the apartment and chatted with Vasi before Charlie decided to take a shower and Vasi went for a nap (with good reason, considering what Georgian Christmas entails). We left for midnight mass at about ten forty-five, because Charlie and Vasi were going to have confession with the priest before mass started. Well, that didn’t pan out so well because once we got to Vasi’s church, everybody, and I mean everybody, was there. May I add that, although I’ve lived in three Latin American countries and middle Tennessee, Georgia is undoubtedly the most Christian place I’ve ever seen. The churches are packed, and you can only guess what Christmas is like. We waited outside the front door of the church like we were waiting to get into the hottest club in town. We had a feeling we wouldn’t be able to squeeze in, but, I’ll be darned, we made it in the church and mass started soon after. We were packed so tightly in the sanctuary that we didn’t even have to try to stand (May I add it was standing only, the standard Orthodox style I’m guessing.). Charlie couldn’t even cross himself, at least not all the way.

The service was beautiful, fully loaded with incense and a thousand and one Georgian chants. I even started singing along after a while, although I had no idea what the words were. Sometimes I just had to look around at all the people there. There’s something profoundly beautiful about the Orthodox tradition. The idea that all the people, everyone in the neighborhood, is in there, standing together in one place, was moving for me. The fact that the seventy some odd years of the churchless Soviet era has been followed up by this kind of commitment to church life is pretty amazing.

After Vasi received the bread and wine communion mixture from a golden spoon, we headed out of the church and received free shots of wine and little pieces of bread and met Vasi’s friend who works with her at I.O.C.C. This gentleman’s name was Archel, and he was a class act who took us around the city after church. We first went to the massive Sameba church, which was beautiful and boasted some of the best chanting I’d ever heard. We hung around there for a little while, and Charlie pointed something out about the Georgian Orthodox tradition. It seems like, for Protestants and Catholics, at least, church is a pretty formal place. You go into the church to worship, not necessarily to socialize. We noticed, however, that this humongous church was full of people who were either praying, chanting, venerating (a hobby of mine), or just hanging out. Plenty of folks, particularly teenagers, were sitting on the floor, just chatting. It kind of gave a different meaning to what we initially conceptualize as the worship space. That night, it seemed more like a community center (That is, a community center where people waited to pray for healing by the remains of a saint like they were waiting to get Jerry Garcia’s autograph.).

After that, we headed to a restaurant to bring in the birth of Jesus in genuine Georgian fashion, by drinking vodka and easting delicious food. The restaurant was packed with people, old and young, participating in post-mass revelry (I think you’d do the same, too, wouldn’t you?). Mind you, it’s three o’clock in the morning at this point, and seeing as I’d gotten up at six in Oğuz, I had to order a Turkish coffee to keep up, and I’m glad I did, ‘cause we got our good eatin’ on and our good drinkin’ on. We had some kind of chicken soup that was simply to die for, pork kabobs (That’s right. Pork kabobs.), two kinds of xingali (round dumpling like things with meat or cheese inside), beer, and vodka. Couldn’t complain about that. When we were finally bursting with gastronomical pleasure, we rolled out of the restaurant, and Archel dropped us off at Vasi’s apartment. We ended up chatting ‘till almost seven in the morning, and I crashed hard when we finally hit the sack.

We got up the next day, and after a little breakfast, we went to Vake park and hiked up to Turtle Lake, a beautiful body of water with some nice restaurants around it. I tried to run up the hill towards the lake, and was humbled by nearly keeling over from being so winded. After a cappuccino by the lake, we headed down the hill and met a good friend of Vasi’s. This was an interesting situation because this girl couldn’t speak English. However, she lived in Barcelona for some time, so she could speak Spanish. While hanging with her, I comically stumbled through my, now, crappy Español, which was kinna funny.

We ended up spending much of the evening with Vasi and her friend. We walked around town with them and came back to the apartment and hung out some more. She eventually headed out, and we stuck around the bachelor pad and drank way too much together, and we all ended up crashing around…I don’t even remember what time it was.

The next day, we casually got up and had a lovely breakfast, which included bacon, another pork product. Archel came over briefly and ate with us and chatted, and Charlie and I soon after got our stuff together and headed out the door. We hugged Vasi, our new best friend, and rolled over to where our taxi to Legodekhi would be leaving from. We crossed the border into Azerbaijan once again at around six that evening and ended a pretty dang good trip to Georgia.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

What I'm Thinking About

Good day, campers! Rise and shine (although I'm not sure what time of day it will be when you read this...if you read this)! Better put on your booties, 'cause it's...unseasonably warm in Baku. At this time last year, we were finally rolling out to the rayons on this day. There was a freakin' blizzard in Baku (We were embarrassingly falling all over the sidewalks.) last year, and we were stuck here for an extra night, which wasn't too bad because we got to chill in the Peace Corps lounge, with its D.V.D.'s and Internet. Oh yeah, and our friends were also there, but who needs friends when you have that kind of electronic stimulation? I mean, you should look at us now in my buddy Corey's apartment. We're connected to Dlink's (whoever that is) wireless (which only works in one room of the house. You have to understand the geography of leeching others' Internet.). Two computers are sitting open on the kitchen table, and I'm son a bed next to Mariel, an AZ7, who has a computer sitting on her lap. We aren't talking to one another, and why would we?

So what's it like in old Azerbaijan these days, anyway? One one note my friend Corey, who has the sweet apartment in Baku, was a volunteer in the rayon of Davachi. He eventually decided to give that up and take a job in Baku teaching English at Baku Oxford school. Considering the fact that he makes over a thousand Manat a month now and he's spending time in the classroom with students that speak great English, I wouldn't say his decision was too bad. Oh, and let's not forget the fact that his apartment is simply lovely, with a washing machine. Seriously, a washing machine. Have you heard of these things? They're simply wild. You take your clothes and put them in there with a little soap. The clothes get shaken around for a little while and, voila, they're clean. I've never seen anything like it. They must run on witchcraft or something.

Anyway, what the hell was I talking about? Oh yeah, I guess I can't entirely blame Mr. Corey for putting a halt to the Peace Corps gig and taking up a nice job in the big city. I mean, considering how often I come and stay in his apartment, my feelings can't be too negative. He's a good dude.

Okay, I'm not gonna lie here, people. I don't know what I'm doing at the ol' computer right now. I simply decided, with the quick access to Internet, to just get on the web log and write. I've also been enjoying myself pretty thoroughlly in the Baku for the past couple days, which, as you can imagine, can put one in an interesting place.

So what's it like in January in Azerbaijan? Well, let me tell you this. You see, January is the month after December and before February. It's also the first month of the year. Last year, I don't recall doing anything in January, besides starting to teach and being overwhelmed by the amount of time I'd be in Azerbaijan. When you're unsure of what the heck you're doing but entirely sure of exactly how long you' unsure of what you're doing, your spirit goes into a, to say the least, interesting place, but that's life, eh? Mountains and valleys, strikes and gutters, you know. I can honestly say, at this point, that I'm glad I'm here and most certainly happy I've stayed in this lovely country through the ups and downs.

I'm pretty much planning on not doing much for the next couple months. By "not doing much", I mean I don't think I'll be going anywhere too exotic, unless you count Ismael's market in downtown Qumlaq exotic. Sometimes he has chocolate covered dates in his store. I mean, that's pretty crazy, huh? What's next...uh...tacos stuffed butter? Okay, my attempt to be witty has failed, although I must say that, after eating the same three Azerbaijani meals for over a year, I probably wouldn't turn down a peanut butter taco. It's actually not a horrible idea. You're pretty much just taking the best of Mexico and America and putting them together. At last. Okay, that was truly unnecessary.

Alright, now I really don't know what I'm talking about or why I even sat down at the computer to write this stupid thing in the first place. I humbly apaologize to anyone who's actually reading this. I swear, if anyone were to open up my head and peer in, I fear it would be similar to splitting an atom. Sure it looks harmless at first, but just crack that thing open and all kinds of nonsense would burst out. I don't recommend it, which might justify my quitting to write at this very monent, for mine and your sake.

Seriously, you're free to navigate ("Navigate". There's a great word for surfing the Internet. What are we? Sailors?) away from this web log and go check out Wikipedia at any time. I mean, how else are you going to know about major court cases in Madison County Mississippi in September of 1965, or who the governor of Montana is? This knowledge doesn't just teach itself.

Alright, I guess I'd better log off and figure out what I'm going to do today. I'm sorry if you're on the brink of dozing off on your keyboard. I mean, if you do, just make sure your nose doesn't land on one of the keys. It'd be embarrassing if someone were to walk by you at your computer to see ten thousand commas on the address bar. I don't think the Internet would recognize that.