Saturday, August 29, 2009

Amy in the Fall

I will conquer this cold weather. I'm secretly wearing three layers on the top (undershirt, blouse, and vest) and two on the bottom (tights and jeans). It should not be this cold in August. Hard core sleeping bag remains in the corner of my room because I refuse to take it out until September.

Hiking in Lerik

The Girls!
Our Guide

This summer as part of my Lerik Girl's Camp, I took my girls for a hike. One girl's brother tagged along as our guide, and since he is one of my students, I let him come along. This picture are taken in the gorge behind my school.

Where I run

This is my stadium. It's about a two minute walk from my house, located in the valley-ish area. The track is poorly maintained, so the second half of each lap is a bit like running cross-country. However, I am a huge fan of my track. I share my morning runs with turkeys and chickens, and, sometimes, I have to defend my track from dogs.

Lerik in the fall

Fall Activities include drying feathers for pillows, watching low, fast-moving clouds in the valley, and washing wool.

Trinkets of Baku

As requested I am posting pictures. This picture is in Targova (Fountain Square). The PCVs come to this area for McDonalds, Falafels, and other yummy stuff. This area is highly touristy, so you can buy trinkets like eye eyes, dolls, hats, and mini-carpets.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Triumphant Return from Going No Where

23 August 2009

Dearest everyone,

Whoa!  So, when I took off for summer, I guess I really took off.  You would think now that I have internet at home that I would be more on the ball.  Now that summer is officially coming to an end (school starts 15 September, and it’s already getting cold in Lerik), it is time to give y’all the summer review and to resume my monthly (hopefully) letters.

The end of school was rather uneventful.  In fact, it was slightly painful.  I was ready for school to end, but that isn’t why the end was unpleasant.  Around the 20th of May or so, the kids began to return their books to the library.  What?  How do you teach a class, when the kids can’t “turn to page ___”?   There was definite creative lesson planning going on, and for the last two weeks, I basically flew by the seat of my pants when I walked into class.  The good news: I felt as if my kids were really coming along in their English and if not in their English, then they were more confident to at least try to speak.  Now that summer is coming to an end, I miss my little monsters.  The bad news: I was completely frustrated by all the little things.  Really, “Hello,” is the most diabolical two-syllable word in the English language.  When you’re having a bad day, the “hellos” feel like an attack.  As I’ve said it before, but when you want to drop kick the third form kid for saying hi to you, it’s time to leave site and cool off. 

Luckily for me, I had a planned trip to visit Sara in her lovely region and a weekend with my host family in Masazir to look forward to.  Thirty May marked Son Zang (last bell).  Here in Azerbaijan, the eleventh form doesn’t graduate like we do in America.  Instead they have a celebration to commemorate the last bell of the school year.  Of course, I had to attend.  I am the resident American and hold a celebrity-sideshow freak status here in Lerik.  Seriously, I was asked by several eleventh form kids to come to Son Zang.  I don’t even teach eleventh form because I have a rule that I don’t teach students taller than me.  So, I went.  It was a remarkable experience.

There were the normal speeches by the school director and local officials, Azerbaijani songs and dances, and poems yelled into the microphone by the younger children like there is at all school functions.  This school function was especially fun because it was finally sunny enough to sit outside the whole time and because two eleventh form boys performed Aysel and Arash’s “Always.”  “Always” is the Azerbaijan entry into Eurovision’s Song Contest and took third place.  I must say the boy dressed as Aysel went all out.  He wore a wig made from cassette tape ribbon, heels, and a skirt.  And he can really shake his hips.  I was seriously amused.  My favourite part of Son Zang is the symbolic passing of the torch.  For the whole ceremony, the little first formers (some in tiny three-piece suits) stood in front of the eleventh form kids.  The first formers represent the next generation of Azerbaijanis whose education will propel them and their country its next stage of development.

After the ceremony, Hiba and Elmer came up the mountain to Lerik, and I took them on a nice hike through Jangamiran – the village next to Lerik.  Between the hike and Song Zang, I got a rather wicked sunburn on my forearms.  Seriously, it looks like I’m wearing tan gloves that come up halfway up my forearm.  I’ve had this tan mark all summer.

June began with Children’s Day.  My host mom wished me a happy children’s day, and I had to laugh.  She also wished Saida a happy children’s day, so I guess no way I’m going to be completely an adult in this house.  To answer any lingering house questions, I am staying with my host family.  Yes, I complained about them at first, but I really like them now.  I like the company they provide, the constant language exposure, and the great people they are.  I realize that this is very typical Amy behaviour, but this is the situation.  While my mother in the states realized that the biggest problem I had with this host family was me having my head up my butt, it took me a bit longer to realize it.  That being said, my mom realizes why I did because she met my Masazir host family in July and now knows how wonderful that family is.  But more on that in a bit.

What made Children’s Day great was that the children from my sixth and seventh form conversation club performed their poems and songs.  They all did a wonderful job, and it was great seeing how excited they were to perform.  They are little monsters, and I love them dearly.

The next day, I left for Sara’s.  It was a ridiculous travel day in which I learned what bus NOT to take and why I don’t like riding in taxis alone.  But I made it safely into Sara’s city, and I had great time with my best friend here in Azerbaijan.  We cooked excellent food, laid on her balcony and read, and caught up.  We even guested at a family we both know.  Remember Shebnam from a long time ago.  Well, her family moved to Sara’s town and is related to Sara’s host family.  So we both know this family, and of course, I had to see them when I was in town.  They are doing well but miss Lerik a lot.  (I would too.  It’s truly my favourite place in Azerbaijan.)  It was really hard to leave Sara’s because she is one of those people that I can just be with.  We don’t need to fill up the space between us with words.  We just sit and be with each other.  Plus, it’s always nice to have someone to complain to rather than doing it via phone calls.  I didn’t want to leave, but I had to visit Ana and Ata and get supplies for my upcoming camp in Baku.

The supplies pick up was a resounding success.  I found everything I needed/wanted for my Lerik Girl’s Camp, and I had a great time with the Masazirians.  I love them so much.  Seriously, they occupy the same status as family now.  Ata and I have arguments about when I have to return to site.  Ana continually overfeeds me like a good Louisiana grandmother would.  Gunay consults with me like Emily.  And Tunar is still Tunar.  But he’s growing so much.  He’s so tall, and when I leave, he’ll be a little man.  It’ll be so disturbing.

My Lerik Girl’s Summer Camp and my English Clubs were, in my opinion, a success.  The Lerik Girl’s Summer Camp did achieve the goals that I wanted to hit upon.  The girls wanted an English Club and I wanted more of a girl empowerment/day camp feel.  So we compromised.  I ensured the lessons of girl empowerment were simplified and taught in English, but we also made crafts and played sports.  Week one, we discovered who we were and the rolls we filled, made masks, and played soccer.  Week two, we gave compliments and said what we were good at, made friendship bracelets, and played soccer.  Week three, we learned about stereotypes (about Americans and Azerbaijanis) and how we are all different, made flowers to give to their mothers, and played dodge ball.  I was really proud of this lesson, and the girls seemed to really get it.  Week four we went on a hike and had tea at Gultakin’s house.  Week five we spoke about our goals, made plans to achieve our goals, made more bracelets, and played volleyball.  Truth be told the lessons were basically all in Azeri (go me), but I feel like they learned a lot.  I had a great time with my kids, and I’m grateful for Jaclyn’s, Joyce’s, and Jenn’s help.

The English Clubs were just funny.  The fifth form boys and I played sports.  I tried to teach them sports in English, but we would end up playing soccer for 30 minutes every Wednesday.  I wanted to play soccer with them every Wednesday, but unfortunately, many things prevented me from playing soccer with them after the clubs were finished.  Very little English was learned, but I did teach them that girls can play soccer.  While I’m not a great soccer player by any means, especially since I rarely touch the ball and am out-of-shape, I could keep up with the fifth formers, and I cherished my time on the field with them.  The sixth and seventh form club and eighth form club was about American culture.  However, the attendance was rather pitiful.  I’ve been expecting this – especially because its summer – but I was amused nonetheless.  We also had our lessons.  I taught about American Football, American Music, and the 4th of July. 

My philosophy on the English Clubs is as follows: if one student comes to my English Club and tries to learn, then my club was a success.  I cannot make my kids come to my clubs, but even if one kid comes, then for that hour, I will try my hardest for that kid.

Mid-June was the TEFL Counterpart Conference.  I was half-expecting Tarana to back-out last minute, but much to my pleasure, she came!  We had a great trip up, including our marshutka driver yelling at the police officer who pulled him over, refusing to pay the cop a bribe, and driving off with a door open.  I was thoroughly amused.  The Counterpart Conference was great because after the conference, Tarana felt really proud of the work we had accomplished.  She understood more of the PC goals for TEFL volunteers and how well we work together.  I was happy that she could see her own progress.  I had the pleasant task of trying to describe to a room full of Azerbaijani English teachers our (PCV’s) expectations for working with our counterparts.  I had to say this in a nice tone.  I can’t say, “We expected you not to teach us like a text-book reader.”  I had fun being politically correct and said things like, “We expected to teach and plan our classes together.”  By keeping an upbeat attitude, I actually impressed Jeremy’s counterpart who is really so sweet.  I love Tofiqa.  She is always smiling and is a strong, intelligent woman.  I should call her soon. 

Other highlights from the TEFL CP Conference was the fast internet at the hotel.  I got to download music, Skype, and check on the news.  Yes, I do realize that Michael Jackson has passed away.  I averaged very little sleep the whole conference because it was more important to chat than to sleep.

The other highlight from June is that my host sister – Sonya – and her children – Jala and Kanan – came in from Moscow to spend the WHOLE summer with us.  I was intimidated at first.  I’m not used to my quiet house having a screaming 3 year old, but Jala did amuse me.  I like talking to kids in this country.  They don’t really understand that you don’t understand them.  They just keep talking to you as if you get it all.  With Jala, she speaks half-Russian to me because she goes to school in Moscow.  When she counts, she counts to seven in Azeri and then switches to Russian.  I mainly hid in my room when they were out and about.  Kanan would just scream and scream.  It was easier to be in my room. 

On to July.  July only meant one thing to me.  MOM AND DAD WERE COMING!!!!  By June, I had a countdown going.  I could hardly wait to see my parents; it had just been way too long.  But before Mom and Dad could arrive in Azerbaijan, an important holiday passed: the 4th of July.  Now, I’m not a big Fourth of July person in the States.  Last year, I worked on the fourth and celebrated by drinking an Abita Strawberry Ale and looking at my calendar seeing when I would leave for Azerbaijan.  This year, I felt as if I should really try and celebrate it.  (End result: still ambivalent to the holiday.)

Maybe it’s my anthropology training, maybe it’s travelling abroad, maybe it’s because I’m Amy, I do not feel any more American now than I did when I left America. 

[Side note: all week there have been soccer games in the stadium near my house.  I can hear the loud cheers and drums in my room.  I walked past the stadium this afternoon, but I’m a bit timid about going to the games because I’d be the only girl there.  I know I could break gender roles and stuff like that, and, honey, that’s easier said than done.  I do wish I could go to the soccer game, but then I wouldn’t be writing you this lovely letter.]

I do realize more of the privileges I have been born into because I was born an American.   However, I feel like I already realized how much being an American tied into interpretations of my own identity and perceptions of the world.  Who knows, but, yay, for not having to experience that part of culture shock!

My fourth of July was spent up in Xachmaz.  I had a great time seeing everyone, especially Corey.  I think more people were shocked that Amy left site.  I tend not to leave for anything, and when school starts, I may leave site once a semester.

Lately, I’ve been getting more and more requests from locals not to leave Azerbaijan and to marry a local boy.  I keep telling them that my dad forbids me to stay in Azerbaijan and that he says I can’t marry an Azerbaijani boy.  Olmaz! This means “it mustn’t be” and is one of the phrases my dad learned in Azerbaijan.

Now for Mom and Dad in Azer-land!  My parents arrived into Baku late on 12 July.  I have to take a moment to say that I am Corey’s debt for all his help.  He really helped me calm my nerves the day that I was preparing to get my parents from the airport.  He helped me sort things out with Ana and Ata who were disappointed that my parents were not staying with them in Masazir.  Seeing my parents in Azerbaijan was a surreal experience.  I am so grateful that they came: A) I just really, really missed them;  B) Now they understand so much more about Azerbaijan, my PC service, and Azerbaijanis.  We had an awesome time.  I don’t know how else to describe it.  It was awesome.  Not only was it awesome but also my parents are absolute troopers. 

They went through Azerbaijani boot camp and survived!  The only way it would have been a more authentic PC experience is if we had stayed with my Masazir host family.  But we stayed at a hotel instead.  Special thanks to Emily, Martin, and Jonah for making me fabulous mixed CDs of new songs and favourite songs.  I appreciate new music and the fact that y’all made these for me.  I miss y’all dearly, and as much as I wish that y’all could have come to Azerbaijan, I’m so glad y’all didn’t.  We would have filled up half a marshutka and I would have had five times the amount to translate.  It was hard enough with Mom and Dad.  Next year would be awesome though….

Ok, enough of the plugging.  First day in, Mom, Dad, Corey, and I head to Masazir for dinner with my host family.  Ana prepared a feast, and Ata finally got a McManus to eat his kabobs.  The food was great, the company was even better, and Corey translating for my dad was the best.  My dad got to hang out with the Masazir men in a different fashion than if I were alone.  He drank beer, vodka, and got to participate in men conversation.  Mom and I stuck to the women’s side.  Mom was told that her hair cut was very fashionable (two years ago).  We had a great time, and I loved the meetings of my families.  Plus, Mom and Dad got to experience what it means to never be hungry in this country.  We feasted everywhere.

True to PCV form, Baku was the American experience.  We ate hamburgers, drank beer (Yay for Guiness!), and had espresso and carrot cake.  (Although the coffee was far superior in Lerik thanks to all the coffee implements and coffee beans people have sent.)  We tracked up Maiden’s Tower, walked along the Caspian, got lost in the Old City, and unsuccessfully searched for Georgian and Thai food.  I showed them where the Americans hang out, drink beer, and played tourist.  It would have disappointed Laura, my older sister, that we failed to stop by any museum.  However, I was showing Mom and Dad my Baku, and my Baku is really only limited to the PC lounger and Targova.  I just had so much fun showing off my parents to my PCV friends.  It was as if I was trying to prove to myself that my parents were really here. 

After a couple of days in Baku, we made the trip down to Lerik.  This is when Mom and Dad showed their real trooper status.  We take an un-AC bus down to Lankaran and taxi it up to Lerik.  It was a lot easier to follow this pattern than to try to catch the 7:30 bus to Lerik.  I am amused by the little boy sitting next to me who obviously doesn’t want to be sitting next to a girl and is crammed up next to the arm rest and by my mom whose motion sickness medicine has knocked her out for the trip down.  Upon our arrival to Lerik, we have a pleasant surprise.  Knowing there are no hotels in Lerik (at least none I would let my parents stay at), we had arranged to stay with my host family.  Walking through the door, I find that the only person home is my host mom.  Apologizing, she says that tomorrow she must leave for Baku because Saida is meeting the man who will become her fiancé and my host mom wants to be there so she can approve of this man.  By all means, I think meeting Saida’s fiancé is more important than babysitting my parents.  I can do that on my own.

My host mom spends the evening cleaning the house and cooking levengi (YUM!), and I spend 30 minutes explaining how the house works to my parents.  I show them water tower outside the house, the kalonka (water heater), the indoor and outdoor squat toilet (lessons to come later), my room, the house, etc.  Then, like a good Azerbaijani, I serve tea to my parents while my host mom turns on the satellite TV for my parents.  Dad laughs at the irony of a squat toilet and a satellite TV.  I can no longer see the irony since we do have an indoor squat.  That’s fancy!  In Lerik, we went to 8 people’s houses and Konul muellima’s wedding.  That’s right, I brought my parents to a wedding.  We may have gone deaf sitting next to the speakers, but we ate, danced, and rubbed elbows with Lerik’s finest.  I am so proud of my parents for putting up with all the craziness I put them through.  Everyone who met my parents were so happy that we stopped by and visited.  Of course, everywhere we went, we drank tea, ate sweets, and most places we ate a meal.  My mom’s favourite story is when we went to my neighbour’s.  My neighbour (I love this family) asked me if my parents ate meat.  Yes, they eat meat.  Do they eat chicken?  Yes, they eat chicken.  Good, I’m going to go cut off one’s head.  Ok….What?  **Distressed chicken clucking comes from outside and is quickly silenced.**  I was really amused, but we had a great time. 

With my host mom gone, we drank forbidden iced water, mom and dad could manage the squat toilets in peace, and we could truly relax from guesting in the evening, watching Aljeezra from the satellite TV.  We went back to Baku to finish our trip, and I was truly reluctant to see Mom and Dad go.  Luckily, I had Ana and Ata waiting for me in Masazir to help ease the separation pain.  It was hard to let go of Mom’s hand at the airport.  I wanted to selfishly keep them in Azerbaijan, but I also knew that life would continue on as it had before they came.  However, to buffer entering the real world, I stayed in Masazir for a week after Mom and Dad left, which was still too short of a time for Ata.

Gunay was having a hard time when I arrived in Masazir.  She had not done well on her university exams.  I was so upset for her, and Ana said that Gunay hadn’t really eaten since getting the results.  I tried to cheer her up the best I could, telling her about how I didn’t get into the Peace Corps the first time I did.  But I tried again.  And if I had gotten in the first time, I would have never met them because 2008 was the first year Masazir was used for training.  Ana kept saying, “See, Gunay.  Things happen for a reason.”  I wanted Gunay to see that, but I knew it’s hard to do that when you are so disappointed.  So I just tried to be the best big sister I could.

Gunay wanted to go to Baku and show me around the Bulvard.  So, I agreed.  We had a great time.  My Masazir host family continually reminds me why I love this country, why I love Azerbaijanis, and why being here has a purpose.  Gunay and I searched and searched for a boat that would take us on the Caspian.  We found and rode the windy vessel.  We rode unsafe carnival rides, which scared Gunay so much.  Like a good friend, I laughed way too hard at her fear.  I tried to warn her if she didn’t like the ride that moved back and forth but didn’t go upside down that she wouldn’t like the one that actually went upside down.  But I went anyways.  I felt like I was just one of the girls, and it’s so nice to have a sweet, genuine person like Gunay look up to you and remind you of the positive qualities you do possess when you’re having a bad day. 

To show my gratitude, I took Gunay to “little America” aka Café Caramel.  I wanted her to see what I liked about Baku.  Café Caramel is a place where the PCVs go for good coffee and sweets.  We each had an Americano and split a lemon tart.  She loved it so much and bragged to Tunar when we got home.  After seeing her so sad for so long, it was wonderful to see my beautiful host sister smile and enjoy the little things again.  (Later Ana thanked me for what ever I did that corrected the former situation.) 

But it came time for me to return to Lerik.  Off I went on the Lankaran bus.  While my Masazir family feels like home, Masazir itself is no longer home.  Lerik is home, and seeing Lerik peeking between the mountains when you are only ten kilometres away is a sight that I love.  I always go on about how much I love Lerik, but it’s true.  Lerik is a wonderful, magical, friendly place.  I’m so happy that this is my site.

Word around the PC office is that I may be getting a sitemate this December.  I still have mixed feelings towards this idea.  Mainly, I wanted to be alone at site for two years.  I’m not good at sharing, and I am scared that another American will ruin what I have in Lerik.  I know this irrational, but I can still pout.  I accept that I’ll probably get a sitemate, and I just hope that they’re a cool person and that they don’t speak Azerbaijani better than me.

August began cold and rainy.  I was a bit upset at first, because I wanted 3 full months of summer.  No fair giving me only 2 months of summer.  I will stubbornly refuse to put on my PC sleeping bag before September.  Nine months a year is my limit for using my PC sleeping bag.  Luckily, after the rain stopped it warmed up a bit.  It’s no longer hot like when Mom and Dad were here (although it wasn’t really that hot when they were here); I still wear long sleeves most of the time and have started to sport tights under my jeans.

Oh, I guess that is a development.  Starting in June (6 months being in Lerik), I started to wear pants on a regular basis.  Most people were kind of shocked but took it as a sign that I am more comfortable in town.  It’s like I’m showing everyone that I can be more American.  Although, the old ladies loved it that I wore long skirts.  I think as long as I dress pretty modestly, it really doesn’t matter what I wear.  I’m the American and that gives me some wiggle room for what I’m allowed to wear and do.

Scott, an AZ05, came up the mountain to visit Lerik before he leave in September.  Now, as he realized on the trip to Lerik and I will try to clarify for you, when I say Lerik is in the mountains, I don’t mean I live in the foothills of the Talish mountains.  I mean that I literally live on top/side of a mountain.  I love it, but it does lead for an interesting ride getting here, especially when it’s windy, rainy, or snowy.  Anyways, Scott was my first male visitor (besides my dad), so I wasn’t sure what to do.  He stayed at the house anyways; I just tried to make sure that everyone knew who he was in order to prevent some rumours.  I haven’t been kicked out of town yet, so I’m guessing I did a good job. 

Anyways, Scott and I went hiking through Lulakaran and up the mountains to the south.  It was a hard hike for me, but the view was worth it.  We went to the top of the mountain and looked to the other side.  It was just a steep cliff down, but it was awesome.  Now, the mountain chain to the south is the border to Iran.  Lerik, my rayon, border Iran.  Lerik, my town, is fifteen kilometres from Iran.  So, yes, I peered into Iran.  I did not know about the story of the hikers; I found out about them the next day.  I won’t make a regular habit of hiking to the border; nevertheless, I’m so glad I did this hike.  It was beautiful.  It was neat to see the cloud rolling into the valley or at times straight into me.  Funny, cows scale the mountain too.  Scott kept pointing out to me when I was tired that there was cow manure in front of him, so if a cow could get this high on the mountain so could we.  Competitive as I am, I could not let a cow scale a mountain and admit defeat myself.

My host mom, having enough of Scott, politely kicked him out of the house, and life continued on in Lerik.  I completely toy-ed it up.  I went to two wedding in three days!  And I toy-ed for more than 12 hours.  It was quite the cultural experience.  The first toy I went to was my first boy-toy.  I think I have said before that there are boy weddings and girl weddings.  It’s like having a two-part wedding ceremony: one for the girl’s family and one for the boy’s family.  So, I went to the boy-toy where we were related to the groom.  At 5pm we went to Zaza’s house.  She is my host-dad’s mom and my Azerbaijani grandmother.  She cracks me up.  We waited for the bride and groom to arrive.  When they did, women danced front of the car, Zaza sacrificed a sheep in front of me (kind of disturbing), and had the normal gathering of relatives and people I don’t know.  I was polite and quiet, and we went to the toy at 7.  I ate, danced, and did the normal toy rituals.  Around 1, I had enough.  It was time to go home.  How could we still be toying it up?  My neighbours brought me home.  I was flabbergasted when they asked me to have tea at their house.  Excusing myself, I went inside and crashed.  My host family came home within the hour, so I guess I could have toy-ed it to the end, but I was so tired.

My next toy, however, I toyed it to the end.  Two days after my boy-toy, I went to my first little toy.  A little toy celebrates a young boy’s circumcision.  That’s right, young boys, not babies, are circumcised in this culture.  The basic process of a little-toy is like that of a big-toy.  People go the Happiness Palaces, eat plov, salad, bread, etc, and dance.  The only difference is that there a little boy walks through the doors instead of a bride and groom.  This toy was fun because there was a lot of modern music, so we could dance more freely.  I had a great time.  I toy-ed it up for 6 hours, and I lasted until the END!  HA!  Yes, that is victory.

This week, after so much comings and going, I’ve convinced myself to go running on a more regular basis.  I’m done a great job this week, and I can’t tell you how much I miss running.  It is so much fun to wake up early, go to the track, run three miles, and be back before most of the town as woken up.  There is something about running that is just good for my spirit.

I’ve been studying Azerbaijani again, connecting with my host mom and sister (which is so much easier now that the other have gone back to Baku and Moscow respectively), and settling into life in Lerik.

I’m ready for school to start, but before school starts, I’m off to Istanbul for a week.  I’m super excited.  I have a new cell phone which is both Azertastic because it plays music so I can be like the Azerbaijani guys and play music when I’m walking down the street like a little boombox and because its “Russian Red” according to the box.  The latter amuses me far more than it should.

In local news, Ramazan started on Saturday.  “The ninth month of the Moslem calendar.  Commemorates the month in which the Koran was revealed to Mohammed.  Observance involves prayer and abstention from food, drink, smoking, and sex, from sunrise to sundown.”  That being said, I don’t know many Azerbaijanis who are actually fasting for the month of Ramazan.  To me, Ramazan just means that I have a break from going to toys.

Next update will be post-Turkey.  Until then, take care!