27 March 2009
It’s been a while, right? I can’t really say that nothing has happened here, because there is always something happening in Lerik/Azerbaijan. However, that does not mean that I am involved in everything that is happening. As always, I have had high points and low points, and I will do my best to give you an update on the life of Amy without running more than 15 pages. I promised a 12 pager!
For the past two weeks, we have not had school. It is Novruz holiday. Novruz was 20-21 March this year. This holiday is celebrates the beginning of spring and is considered to be the beginning of the new year. Now before you become confused, Azerbaijan works on the Gregorian calendar like we do (even the months sound like our months – e.g. mart and aprel. Novruz is preceded by four Tuesday: Water (which was on Mardi Gras this year), Air, Fire, and Earth. The last Tuesday, Earth, is more commonly the last Tuesday because it is the last Tuesday before Novruz.
Leading up to Novruz, Azerbaijanis are very busy. They clean their houses in spring-cleaning tradition. Everything must be spotless for the New Year. New things are bought for the house: rugs, curtains, clocks. And, most importantly (in my opinion), many national sweets are baked. I got to help (mainly watch) my host mom and neighbour make these goodies. My favourites are pakhlava and shekerbura. Shekerbura is a cookie that is stuffed within an inch of its life with a hazelnut, clove, and sugar mixture. It is amazing! I ate way too many of those things. All the sweets are so time consuming to make, but they really bring the family together. I spent one Friday afternoon making over 120 cookies with my host mom, neighbour, and host sister.
While 31 December in Azerbaijan is celebrated like our Christmas, Novruz has elements of other holidays piled into one: Easter, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. Like Easter, Azerbaijanis dye eggs and play what my family calls pock. This is a game where you hit your dyed egg against an opponent’s egg. The egg that cracks is the loser egg. The Halloween aspect comes from a game that children play called “Papaq” that resembles Trick-or-Treat. “Papaq” means hat in Azerbaijani. Children go door to door Throwing their hats near the door of a neighbour, they cry,” Papaq! Papaq!” The people inside collect the hats and fill them up with candy, shekerbura, and nuts. Novruz is like Thanksgiving because it is a big family event. People visit relatives or have relatives come in from out of town. I had Novruz dinner with my host cousin’s family. It was a really nice time just to be with really kind people.
On the Last Tuesday, I jumped over six mini bonfires in our yard. My illnesses and misfortunes of the past year have fallen into the fire allowing for good things to come my way this year. Then Saida and I lit the candles around the Novruz bowl. There was a candle for each person in the family – even me. Wednesday morning – really early – the women of Lerik go the river that runs through our rayon. We crossed the river three times allowing our illnesses to be swept away. We also washed our faces in the river and after cutting off a small piece of our hair let, we placed it in the river to be swept away by the current.
For the most part, I have passed my Novruz holiday quietly. My host family left for Baku last Wednesday, and I have had the whole house to myself. Some days, I went out and tried to be social, and other days I’ve stayed at home. It is a vacation without leaving site. Sara and Hiba came down south for a couple of days, and it was wonderful to show my site to my friends.
So, I have mentioned before that Lerik is home to earthquakes and fog. Well, we are also home to wind. March has roared in like a lion, and, well, it’s leaving like one too. I think the Tallish mountains form a wind tunnel like in California, because one a week, terribly strong winds blow through the town. They normally knock out electricity for a day or two. I do love the wind, but seriously, everything stops when the wind is that strong out because there is literally nothing you can do.
Earlier in March, we celebrated International Women’s Day. By the way, Azerbaijanis are very surprised that Americans do not celebrate this holiday. I wish we did. It was awesome. Well, the actual day of the holiday, I was visiting Sara and Hiba in the middle of the country, but the day before I left was great. My kids got together and bought me cups. I have three brand new mugs. It was kind of like teacher’s appreciation day. I really like my students. For some reason, I have a hunch they are learning. They may not be fluent in English by the time I leave, but I think they will have learned some English and some other stuff from me.
I have been looking for housing because on 11 April, I get to move out and try to live on my own. I am really looking forward to this. It would be really nice to just have my own space. Good news: the available flat is on top of the mountain and the view is great! Bad news: the flat is on top of the mountain which means the walk home is going to be uphill. I am pretending that the flat is already awesome and that I will live here because in Lerik, frankly, I don’t have many options.
Emotionally, I guess I can’t complain too much. I am happy in Lerik. The people here are so nice. They put up with me and my cultural/language awkwardness. The mountains are looking beautiful as spring comes slowly. Everything is so green, and the amount of produce at market is multiplying. And I can’t lie. Some days are really hard. Peace Corps Volunteers say that during service the highs are high and the lows are low. It is very true. Everything I feel at site is full blast. When I’m having a good day, it is awesome. When I’m having a bad day… But luckily, the good days have outweighed the bad.
6 months! That is how long I have lived in Azerbaijan. To me this is so crazy. It feels like so much longer and that the time has slipped by so quickly. This is the longest I have ever been away from home. I have made some great friends here who definitely have made culture shock a little more manageable. As of right now, I can’t really say that I have any regrets. This next 21 months will have many trials and great times. But I’m ready to accept them.
I love that the days are getting longer. If my time in California and London taught me anything, it taught me that I am a person who loves sunny days. Not that I want everyday to be sunny, but the fact that the sun rises at 6 and sets after 7 makes me so happy. It is easier to get up in the morning and just be happier in general. I know that those of you in American have already changed your clocks but here in Azerbaijan, we spring forward on 29 March. For future reference, we change our clocks on the last Sundays in March and October.
So I am sure you are curious about Ana and Ata in Masazir. They are family now. I am stuck with them whether I like it or not. (And I do like it, and they are also stuck with me! I love those people.) Ana and Ata call every other week to check in. They always want to know if I am warm if the people are nice, if work is going well. Of course all the answers are yes. “Emi, do you have enough money? Emi, are you happy? We miss you.” And of course the most important question, “Emi, when are you coming home?” They lit a candle for me on Novruz. I miss them so much. I could not have asked for a better PCT family. The trainee who gets them this fall will be so very lucky.
So, I think in my last letter I wrote that I had no cell phone. Well, I went three weeks without a cell phone, but I finally got one in February. Being without a cell phone was definitely a good experience. I had to start focusing my attention in site. If I was having a problem and wanted to talk it out, I had to talk it out at site. Now, don’t get me wrong, it was rough at first. In fact, within the first week, the proverbial excrement hit the fan. It was probably the lowest point that I have ever hit in Peace Corps (to this point).
After school one day, Saida asked me what was wrong. I told her that I missed my family and that I was frustrated with the language. She was really encouraging. She told me to keep trying and that it’s hard, but I could do it. It was just what I needed to hear. ALSO, Eleni’s wonderful package came in that day. The man upstairs definitely knew I needed a pick me up.
So here is what I learned being without a telephone:
While constant contact with my American dostlarim (friends) is great, it is easy to use that as a crutch to avoid the “real” world that you are living in. I had to deal with my host family all the time and try to work things out here. I was reminded the benefits of guesting in a society that values guests and that asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a strength of recognizing your own limitations.
I really, really like Lerik. Everyone has really rallied around the fact that my phone was stolen. They are insulted and keep telling me, “You are guest in our country. And we pride ourselves on being hospitable.” I am also told that my phone would NEVER be stolen on a Lerik bus. Bad people live and bad things happen in the big city of Lənkəran.
Finally, there are and will be good days, bad days, and VERY bad days. While two years seems like a long time (and it is a long time), it will fly by, and I need to appreciate every moment I have here. I’m not only helping these people, but they are also helping me.
Because my phone was stolen and my friend Jaclyn’s wallet was stolen in Salyon, we had to file a police report in that rayon. So I left my mountain to meet Jaclyn for our Police Station adventure, and it was definitely a Peace Corps adventure. Neither of us wanted to go up and do what we had to do, but we did nonetheless. We couldn’t really get out of it since Jeyhun the Peace Corps G-man extraordinaire was meeting us. Wednesday evening, I went to Jaclyn’s community and spent the night. I got to meet her wonderful host family who is so sweet. Jaclyn is amazing. Her language skills are so good, and she is so talented. I know she will be a great volunteer.
Thursday morning, we woke up early and got on the bus to Salyan. Correction: first we got on a marshutka; after waiting 20 minutes, we literally ran off the marshutka and flagged down the passing bus for Baku. We made it safely to Salyan after Jeyhyn and Parviz picked us up at the chai break. It was so terrifying to walk into the police station. What would they ask? Would they be understanding? I was just glad that Jeyhun was on my side. He may be the smiliest man I have ever met, but he definitely means business. For an alternative report of our police encounter you can check out Jaclyn’s blog from my blog. I recommend it; Jaclyn is not only an excellent writer: she is also quite funny and a good friend.
Well, it turns out that we had NOTHING to worry about. Filing the police report was actually kind of fun. We got to talk to Jeyhyn, drink chai, and talk to the police officers. They were incredibly sweet men. We were assured that no one from Salyan took our belongings. We were asked if we were single and our opinions of Azerbaijan, our regions, and Nagorno-Karabakh. The last one is very sticky. I played diplomat with this answer. You should definitely look this event up. But I’ll write a brief history shortly.
Our police reports were written for us with Jeyhun translating what we said into Azerbaijani. Then to our surprise, the police chief took us all out to lunch. We were given Sheki sweets (very yummy) and then fed until we wanted to burst. Of course, I was given crap because I am a vegetarian. “Why?” “It’s good.” Etc. Even Jeyhun was shocked. I just had to laugh. Malaka (Vagif’s wife) told me that I should eat meat in Azerbaijan because the meat is good and that I can be a vegetarian when I get to the United States. No one has to know!
Like that is going to happen. I’ve managed vegetarian eating thus far, I think I can manage the next 21 months.
On the home front: things are going really well with the host family. We have established a balance of coexistence. Yeta and Saida are really good people, and I do enjoy their company. I have been fortunate enough for them to put up with me when moods were less than stellar. They have been so helpful in little ways. They helped me get a new cell phone and just tried to help me adjust to life in Lerik.
My last email, I stated that I wanted to go guesting more. Well, I didn’t really accomplish my goal of going out 4 times that week. But I am guesting more. I’m probably averaging about 3 visits a week. Part of it is the American in me really hates to just drop in on someone. I always am getting invites, but as Gulnara, my Program Manager, pointed out, invites don’t always mean that they want you to come right NOW. Guesting is a lot of work for the hostess, and frankly it’s a lot of work with me as I struggle with my language skills.
On Tuesday 17 February, I went with my host family to my neighbour’s house. We have been there before; it is an older woman, her son, her daughter-in-law, and their two children. I try to follow the conversation, but sometimes, it gets overwhelming for me. I don’t know if it’s the accent or I’m just not as good as I want to be in Azerbaijani (it’s probably the latter). But regardless, the two-year-old little boy decided that we were friends on this trip. He kept staring at me, so I finally turned, looked at him, and raised my eyebrows. He squealed with delight and ran out of the room. Only to return 10 more times in the span of 3 minutes. I’m glad he was amused. I was amused too. When we got up to leave, he ran up to me and said, “Don’t go.” When his grandmother asked if I should stay, he said, “Stay.” It was definitely cute. And I’m so glad a two year old doesn’t live in this house and I have to listen to the shrieks of delight. I know it means that they are happy, but they are also ear piercing.
Wednesday brought my first performance review in the Peace Corps. I was super nervous, because I haven’t started any conversation clubs, sports clubs, or any other extra-curricular activities. I feel like I’ve started to integrate into the community, but language sometimes keeps me out of touch. And other days are so foggy that I cannot see more than 10 feet in front of me. But luckily, the review went really well. Apparently, my teachers like me. I like them. And we all play well together. (And we do not run with scissors.) There is not right time frame for a PCV to do their work. Some of us work more slowly than others. It’s also winter; it’s kind of hard to play soccer when the ball gets lost in the snow or in the dense fog bank. It just doesn’t work well, you know? Then again, I’m not one for playing in the snow or the fog.
When March came, I was excited. It’s spring, right? Sara and I said that if we survived our first winter that things would get better/easier. I wanted sunny, warm weather. What should happen but snow! It snowed at least 6 inches. By the next day, most of it had melted away, but it’s the principle of the matter. In March, it does not snow! Luckily, for the most part, the weather has gradually gotten warmer.
I think that hardest thing about being a PCV, for me, is dealing with me. As I have said a multitude of times, I really like Lerik. According to my friend Danny, I tend to drag my feet when the outcome is unknown. I guess that is true. Ok, I know it’s true, I am just not willing to 100% admit it. Some days I definitely find it easier to hide in the house than deal with my language skills or just walk around the community for the 100th time. I realize that the purpose of coming to Azerbaijan and joining the Peace Corps was to help the community that I now live in. I just like to claim that some days must be personal days. I guess I’m hitting stage 2 of culture shock.
Culture shock has a couple of stages according to the Peace Corps reading material provided to us. Stage 1 occurs shortly after entering the country. Everything is amazing/wonderful/new. Cultural differences are viewed as exciting and part of the adventure. The cultural interloper likes to find similarities between their home culture and their new culture.
Stage 2 is the bitter stage of cultural shock and the hardest stage, in my opinion. In this stage, all that was new and amazing becomes annoying and hindering. The once intrepid explorer now can only see differences between their culture and the host country’s culture. At times, she finds the cultural integration process hard and in some ways, resents the changes she has done to fit in.
Stage 3 is coexistence. The interloper no longer sees the host culture as a hindrance and begins to make peace with her surroundings. It’s a process of understanding of coming to understand some cultural practices and just dealing with others. It’s a symbiotic relationship in which our explorer finally feels at home in her new home.
Having studied anthropology at university, I “know” what culture means. I understand culture as a web of meaning that a society applies to their daily lives. It is nonverbally taught to us, and we nonverbally communicate it through our actions. What I value, how I behave, even how I rebel is all informed by the culture I was raised in. You never really realize the deep impact of culture until you are in a place where you are the single representative of your culture. It’s not enough to speak (or in my case – to barely speak) the local language because you still view your surrounding within the perimeters of your home culture. In some ways, I believe my training as an anthropologist allows me to be more thoughtful and aware of my own ethnocentricisms and my new culture. But it does not mean that I am thrown less for a loop by the culture shock.
In many ways, I do not think that my stage 2 of culture shock is going to be a bitter one. I am acknowledging and realizing the differences between Azerbaijani culture and American culture, and for the most part, I’m ok with these differences. I spent my Novruz vacation basically taking an in-site vacation. I think as my language skills grow then I will move faster towards stage 3. But I won’t lie. That in-site vacations was definitely a much-needed break. So maybe I’m not at stage 2 but somewhere between stage 2 and stage 3. I definitely like the sound of that idea.
So for the teachers out there, “Amy, how is teaching going?” Teaching is going really well. I am definitely enjoying it more than I thought. The kids have the ability to completely make my day. Then again on the days when they don’t care to pay attention, they have the ability to make me want to pull my hair out. But it is a rewarding job. Even when they completely screw up a sentence, I’m just ecstatic that they tried to speak English. It’s amazing how enthusiastic they are. My fifth form finally got the concept that if you stay in your seat and raise your hand quietly, I’m more likely to call on you than when you fly out of your seat like a grasshopper.
I’m still working on prompting (when the brighter students tell the answers to the weaker students), but I have hopes that we will get there. If it weren’t for these kids, I’m don’t know if I could make it in the Peace Corps. They love to come up to me and talk to me after class. I may not understand half of it, but we try.
My April project will be starting conversation clubs. Hopefully, the kids will actually come and participate in them. I know some adults in the community want me to start a conversation club for adults, but I want to start with the kids first. Knowing English will help these kids get into university and take advantage of programs like FLEX and UGRAD (US State Department programs that help high school and college students study abroad in the US for a year). It’s not that English is not a valuable skills for the adults, but right now I’m focusing my energy on the youth. And I’ve been at site for 100 days, so it’s time that I try to start some program besides teaching. I claim the first 100 days were to help me adjust to living at site.
Even on the hard days, I don’t want to be anywhere else but a PCV in Azerbaijan. When I think of where I was a year ago and what I was doing, this is just so much more fulfilling. Time certainly flies.
Well, I hate to disappoint everyone, but I think I am out of things to say. So I’m 5 pages short of a 12 pager, but at least now, it’ll be really quick to read this email. ;) Take care everyone, hopefully, it won’t be 2 months until the next email. In April, I have to go into Baku for PC business, so I’ll try to get another email out in roughly 3 weeks.
P.S. Mom and Dad, my 7a form class has our home address. They asked for it, and I wrote it on the board. They told me that when I go back to US that they are going to find me. I told them good luck. So if Azerbaijani children show up on the doorstep, they are from Lerik and very sweet.