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.