Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Long Time Coming

19 September 2009
Dear everyone,
Tomorrow marks on year of leaving Lafayette for this Peace Corps adventure. (It is also, most importantly, Emily’s – my little sister – twenty-first birthday! Happy Birthday, Emily!) It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a year. The year mark is an anniversary of mixed emotions for me. First, I think, “How can this only be a year?” So much has happened in this year. I have hit rock bottom; I have soared higher than the Talysh Mountains. I have struggled with a new language, a new culture, and a new job description. I have made new friends (both American and Azerbaijani) and have been adopted into a loving Azerbaijani family. I learned to manage a squat toilet, to ignore unwanted attention, and to handle knowing that the only American I’ll see is my reflection in the mirror. These are some of my triumphs. I also have my failures: my continual struggle in learning Azerbaijani (and my laziness of not studying), spending too much time in my head rather than with my host family, and feeling as if I’m not doing much for my community.
For all the good (which I cherish) and all the bad (which has made me a stronger person), I wouldn’t trade any of my Peace Corps experience for anything. Looking back, all my nervousness was warranted, but nothing could have prepared me for what was to come when I left Lafayette. Peace Corps has been harder and easier than I expected. I am blown away with how kind, generous, and (of course) hospitable the people of Azerbaijan are. When I hit a brick wall, there is always someone here to give me perspective. Not too long ago, I took the wrong bus from Masazir to Baku. Both buses are labelled 225, but the one I boarded only went to Xirdalan. At the end of the route, the bus driver helped me find the correct bus to Baku. A woman once paid for my ride into Baku (another trip from Masazir to Baku) because I gave her my seat. She was juggling five kids on the marshutka and reminded me of my mother when we all under the age of 13. Yes, I’ve had unpleasant experiences, but I like to think that most of my bad experiences could have happened anywhere in the world. They aren’t Azerbaijan-exclusive incidents.
Peace Corps Volunteer life is like riding a roller coaster. When you’re down, you know you’ll be up again, and when you’re up, you know and dread the impending fall. And in the end, you end up right where you started just with a new perspective. Tonight is Eid or the end of Ramazan. We are celebrating the breaking of Ramazan fasting for the last time tonight. I haven’t noticed strict observance of Ramazan here in Azerbaijan. Some people fast, and some people don’t. It’s interesting to celebrate this holiday here in Lerik tonight. Last year for Eid, I was in Masazir. I remember still being uncomfortable because it was only my third day in Masazir. My host cousin told me that my husband would be ugly because I couldn’t finish my plate of food. (Just a side night, the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar calendar so holidays move up ten days each year on the Gregorian calendar.) In Lerik, it was a slow day. I read my latest Peace Corps lounge book, listened to music, and enjoyed a cup or two of fine French Pressed Community Coffee. Life is good. Today the house has been buzzing with Eid sweet preparation and baking. I am a bit amused with how everyone makes the same sweets and then gives them to each other. So in the end, you end up with all the sweets that you just backed but from different houses. It is interesting to taste little differences in each family’s recipes. The Eid sweet of choice looks like a giant shakurbura (from Novruz) with gogal (again from Novuz) stuffing. I’ll get the name sooner or later, but it has the Amy seal of approval.
I would feel a bit bad for not helping out more with sweet making, because my host-mom is working so hard, and I like to watch how she makes national dishes. Nevertheless, like a good Azerbaijani mother, she doesn’t expect or really want us to lift a finger to help. Saida helps a bit, but, at a moment’s notice, she’ll leave the room and go play on her computer. Ruslan (my host brother who lives in Baku) is home, but being a boy and the youngest is not expected to help. Since I’m the youngest and an American, I’m a baby in two senses, so I just sit in a corner and try to stay out of the way. Azerbaijani women work so hard. My host mom, when she gets going, just doesn’t stop. It’s amazing.
At the Bashirov house, I am left to my own devices for the most part. I went running in the fog and rain. I’ve changed my running routine because school has started. I now run in the evenings. I hate running for an audience of boys, but I figure the novelty will wear off in a month or two. Until then, I’ll just ignore the boys who try to race me for a lap while my blasting music drowns out any of their attempts to communicate with me. When I come in with rosy cheeks, wet hair, and a big grin on my face, Saida and Yeta (my host mom) start fussing over me, telling me to put on some dry clothes, and telling me how I’m going to get sick. Despite the daily onslaught of reprimands, I think Yeta is proud of me for running because she tells all the teachers that I run daily. This report is in a proud mother tone and not in the guess-what-the-crazy-American-is-doing-now tone. Saida, I believe, thinks that running is a bit crazy.
Fall is slowly smothering what was left of summer. Starting in August, sunny, cold days would snidely remind me what was to come. Now, the rain and fog of fall has settled over Lerik, and I layer accordingly. I am already sporting my black wool long johns to colour coordinate with the grey skies.
The rain of autumn is not my enemy like it was in Masazir. Paved roads and living close to school make daily walks less of a mud-sludge-ing adventure. Sometimes the rain is Seattle-like: it mists. But, lately, I’ve had the pleasure of Louisiana-rain. Big drops beat on the truck outside my window (which has finally starting working and been removed from it’s permanent parking space outside my window), fill the potholes at the stadium, and drip off the red school roof to stain the yellow walls. Some days, we are even granted thunderstorms. Last thunderstorm, my three-year old cousin Farid informed me that he wasn’t afraid of the thunderstorms, as we watched the storm from my kitchen window. He also told me a bunch of other things, which I couldn’t catch because a) he was talking really fast and b) his mouth was full of cucumbers he had snatched from the dinner table.
As with most Peace Corps experiences, the bad resides with the good like a colloid. Yes, fall brings cold, foggy days, and the part of me that has lived over ninety percent of my life south of the Mason-Dixon line and roughly seventy percent within a twenty-minute drive of I-10 still cannot fathom that it can actually be this cold. But the cold weather does have some sweet rewards. First, school has started, and I am back – enthusiastically – in the classroom. I actually missed my monkeys. Second, some of my favourite fruits are now in season or will soon be in season. Pomegranates (nar), lemons (limon), persimmons (xurma), figs (anc─▒r), and apples (alma) will once again be cheap and readily available. I cannot express how excited I am for persimmons and pomegranates. Memories of PST rush back with every bite… For such a small fruit, the fig holds so many memories for me.
My maternal grandmother had a fig tree in her yard, and I remember watching her peel them at the kitchen counter. Thinking that they looked squishy and gross, I didn’t like figs for a long time. Homemade fig preserves never lasted long at our house and was eaten on everything from cornbread to rice-cakes and, at times, straight from the jar. I’d bring jars of fig preserves from the bakery home last summer, and after dinner, we’d let the syrupy figs bring us back to Mowata and our childhoods. My first morning in Azerbaijan, I was elated to see fig preserves at breakfast; they were a reminder of home and softened the reality of how far, both in time and distance, I was from home. To me, food is the perfect way to capture a memory; it’s better than a photograph. The sweet smell, the sticky syrup on my fingers, amber-coloured figs sitting in the jar flooded my memory with thoughts of home as soon they hit my tongue. Fig preserves every morning in Masazir reminded me who I was and where I came from and prevented me from losing myself in my new situation. It was my comfort food. Before leaving Masazir last week for Lerik, Ana gave me jar of fig preserves, and I couldn’t help but smile. Figs will always remind me of Mowata, my grandmother, and my mother. This week in Lerik, when I ate my figs on fresh baked bread, recollections of Louisiana and Masazir painted my mental wanderings. I never expected the tiny fruit to hold so many memories.
13 October 2009
So flash forward almost a month, and here I am still typing the same letter, but in a completely new location. Shortly after I started composing this letter, my host mom informed me that I had to find a new residence. That’s right, I was being kicked out. I should probably add that she was very polite, I didn’t have to move until I found some place new (but ASAP), and many PCVs face this problem of sudden homelessness syndrome (henceforth will be called SHS). I should also add that the day I was told that I needed to move out was also 23 September: my one-year anniversary in Azerbaijan. Happy one year, right?
Of course, I went through the normal stages of SHS: shock, anger, despair, panic, hope, and resolution. First was shock; it was so hard to believe that I was being kicked out. Yes, I understood that guests were coming (Saida’s future in-laws, it turns out), but still. Where am I going to go? I had kind of thought that this arrangement was going to see me through my PC service. I have so much to pack. For a lack of better things to do, to prevent crying, and to ensure that I didn’t use all my kontour (read cell phone credit) texting my parents, I began to pack. It took me probably 4 hours to pack my room from 10pm to 2am. I condensed my year in Azerbaijan into my orange backpack, messenger bag, black duffle, eight boxes, and one huge bazaar bag that I can fit into. This was a long cry from the orange backpack, duffle, and messenger bag I brought with me from America. By the end of packing, I was too tired to cry, and the next stage of SHS was hitting anger.
The worst kind of anger is undirected anger. I was so angry with my situation. How could I be kicked out? It wasn’t even something I did. It’s a cultural issue, and, honestly, you have to respect the fact that family is so prized (even future in-laws). Family outranks the American who is paying to stay in your house. I could tell my host mom really didn’t want to kick me out, but I was still angry. What was I going to do? Where was I going to live? Who was I going to live with? I knew the idea of living on my own was a bust, and I just wanted to move as quickly as possible. I couldn’t stay at the Bashirov house any longer than necessary; sometimes, things look better the next day. The cold, cloudy morning only made things look worse, and I slipped into despair.
Getting kicked out does a bit of work to your self-esteem. I felt so unnecessary, disposable, and unliked. I had lived here for 9 months, and, now, I was being tossed aside like week old dolma. Damn, how did I get here? I went to school the next morning, only because I had to start asking everyone for help to find a place. When you need to find a new roof to sleep under, you start asking EVERYONE you know for help. It was surprising to find out that some people already knew that I was kicked out. Apparently Qizyeta had informed people of my impending move even before I knew of it. I was a bit miffed, but considering that it gave my house hunt a jump-start, I got passed my annoyance. My counterparts were shocked to learn that I needed a new place to stay. It was honestly a bit hard to keep it together in class. I just sat there, worried, and probably looked like a pathetic, homesick American. So, I went home early.
Heading home, I ran into my soon-to-be former host dad. That sight did me in. Barely holding back the tears, I managed to crawl into bed, and then I let the tears flow. This is where Qizyeta found me. She came bursting in my room because I wouldn’t answer her. I was hoping that she would think I was sleeping and leave me alone, but she had other plans. She came in to find me in bed red-nosed and tissue in hand. I’m sure it was a lovely site. Like a mother, she came rushing to my bed and threw back the sheets. She said we are going to village today. I think, “Good. I want to be alone today.” She asks me why I’m all packed up. I answer because I’m moving. “Where?” “I don’t know yet.” “Amy, don’t worry. You’ll find a new place, and it’ll be ok.” It’s really hard to be angry with this woman who is stroking my hair, trying to comfort me, and telling me that I can come visit whenever I want. With a kiss on my forehead, she headed to the door, reminding me that we are going to the village today. At this moment, I realized I was included in this we. Oh my.
I knew that I wouldn’t find my new house that very day, but a car ride into the countryside to an unknown village with the people that just kicked me out? Am I really that masochistic? I could tell by Qizyeta’s demeanour that I was not getting out of this one. Maybe she felt guilty. Maybe she wanted to show that I was still her “daughter.” Maybe she just wanted to show me off to relatives. Whatever the reason, I was going to Zuand.
Where is Zuand? Well, the best way to describe Zuand is almost-Iran. We took off towards the village, and my host mom said that Zuand is near Iran and very close to the border. I though, crap, I left my passport and Azer ID back at the house. Inshallah, we won’t get that close to the border. On the rough, mountain roads to Zuand, I could really appreciate the rugged beauty of Lerik. It’s a beautiful rayon. An hour into the trip, I started to realize what Qizyeta meant by close to the border. We pass an Azerbaijan army base, and then I see a long barbed wire fence maybe 200 yards in the distance. My host mom pointed out the window, “See, Amy, that’s Iran. See the fence. See the watchtower.” Oh yes, I saw the watch-tower and wondered how Jeyhun, the PC Safety and Security Officer, would like this story. I took my phone out of my pocket to check the time, and Saida said, “Oh, Amy, phones don’t work here.” Oh boy, no cell phone reception.
As I hoped that we would not get any closer to the border as to incur a check of our vehicle from Azeri border patrol or otherwise, we pull over near some tombstones seemingly in the middle of nowhere. (Nowhere next to Iran.) These are Adil’s relatives, and we have come here to pay our respects. The men stand next to the car while the women circle the tombstones again and again and again. I follow along placing my hand on the tombstone and pulling it across my face. Religious and family moments are always a bit awkward. How do you act appropriately?
Back into the car to drive further into the rayon, we finally made it to Adil’s relatives. Zuand is like a ghost town. Most of the residents have moved to Lerik for work, and the rugged landscape reminds me of the movies. It was a strangely pleasant afternoon, and Qizyeta’s efforts to make me feel not kicked out from her family did win me over. Plus, Farid, my 3 year old host cousin, is just the cutest little kid, and I got to hang out with him all afternoon.
So next came the house hunt. My emotions bounced like a ping pong ball between hope and despair many times a day. I was shown three houses in the course of my house hunting escapades, one of which I couldn’t live in because the new PCV will be living there. And while my emotional rollercoaster had me feeling like time was creeping along, I actually found my new house a week after being told I needed to move. Aynura, my younger counterpart and best friend in Lerik, told me that her classmate and very good friend Gulafat was living alone and maybe I could live with her. One cold, rainy, and dreary Tuesday (funny how it was fitting of my mood), Aynura, her two daughters, and I slowly walked up the hill to Gulafat’s. While the house is admittedly not as nice as Qizyeta’s (let’s face it, she set the standards pretty high), Gulafat instantly won me over. She was really kind and welcoming, and she seemed genuinely excited that I might live with her. I can handle an outhouse, bucket baths, hand washing my clothes, and basically an outdoor kitchen. Before leaving Gulafat’s, I agree to move in with her even though the room that was going to be mine wasn’t ready. I just got a good vibe from her.
Deciding to move in with Gul was such a relief. At last, resolution. I felt like I could breath again; even though looking at all the stuff I had to move up hill, I was a bit reluctant to actually move.
September thirtieth was my supposed move-in day. I waited most of the afternoon for Qizyeta to help me find a car to move; I was willing to get a taxi, but she wouldn’t hear of it. However, after two hours of making calls, Qizyeta was still empty handed, and I was falling asleep on the couch. I offered to call Gulafat and ask for help, but Qizyeta wouldn’t hear of it. She told me to stay the night, kissed my forehead, and sent me to bed. In spite of all the ups and downs, I realized that I liked these people a lot, and I was sad to leave. Nevertheless, sometimes we have to move on.
27 October 2009
When all the moving out rigmarole started, my mother said something better was waiting for me after this settled down. Well, as always, she was right. That something better is a person. Gulafat is my roommate here in Lerik. She’s frankly awesome. She’s really patient with my bad Azerbaijani, super motivated, and really sweet. She is such a strong person for reasons that I won’t get into, but let’s just say that she’s not your typical Azerbaijani woman. We spend a lot of time each day together. She is quite a talker, so I like to sit back and listen. On her birthday, I made her chocolate chip cookies. I could go on and on about her, but I’ll just sum it up saying that she rocks my socks.
On a BIG side note, I must add that there are many people I want to thank for helping through my moving out fun. Tarana and Aynura were so patient and understanding of all my freak outs and panicky moments. Tarana is like a mother-figure. She brought me to look at houses and acted like a translator when I was so stressed that my Azeri went out the window. Aynura is my best friend in Lerik. We joke, watch TV, and even cut class together. She helped me find Gulafat and is a pleasure to teach with. Thanks to my parents at home who lent encouraging words at all the right moments. Thanks to Qizyeta and Saida for being understanding of my dilemma and helping me to find a new place as much as they did. I think we are still having fun telling everyone that Amy did not choose to leave their house nor was she kicked out. They put up with me for nine months, and I am grateful for all the memories. (P.S. They are already fussing at me that I haven’t visited them.)
Moving out caused me to miss class for person reasons, house hunting, and etc. My absences caused minor panic in some of my classes. As soon as the news leaked that Ms. Amy was moving, children were volunteering their houses and scared that I would have to return to America if I didn’t find a house (or England, some of them are still a bit confused the Americans speak English). To everyone’s relief, I found a house and was comfortably moved in by October first, and in my new location, I am now neighbours with many of my students, which they all informed me about numerous times. My favourite new neighbours are Rza and his brother Rashad. Rza cracks me up. He is a very sweet kid who earnestly wants to learn English. He tries to speak, and he’s really a smart boy. He just has this grin that is winning. His favourite English sentences are, “I like it all,” and “it is very, very hot.” Rashad is the younger of the two and just tends to giggle.
Classes seem to be off to a good start. Aynura is up for some of my ideas of classroom reform, and Tarana has asked for help decorating her classroom. I’m afraid that I will not be able to start any clubs before the snow puts them on hold all winter. However, I’m developing ideas for my next round of clubs so they will be fantastic when I finally get them started. My fifth form is much larger than last year, but I see a lot of potential in them. A couple of them are quite quick with the language. Others are just plain eager to learn. One has obvious learning disabilities but tries to participate in the class. Fifth form is always my favourite form. They are at such a great age. These kids are all new to me because I didn’t teach them last year. Sixth form has my favourites from last year. They are an active class, but I can see so much improvement from last year. This is my class; I will see them through my whole time I am here. Seventh form is my class of characters. Each student has such a distinct personality. There are a couple of students who show a great aptitude for English. Eighth form, I regret to say, I’m only with them once a week. The students and I are both upset that I will not be teaching them more this year, yet I feel that I am more productive and a better teacher with the younger forms. Because I have no clubs, my goal every class is to get my children to speak more.
The boarding school is going better this year now that I know what role I fill there. I’m Friday Enrichment for any of the GT kids out there. I teach the children songs and English games. Vagif is a great teacher, and the children have a good grasp on grammar and seem more confident in trying to speak than the children at School 1. This past Friday, my seventh form treated me to a wonderful rendition of “Old MacDonald” with monkeys, wolves, and roosters. The wolf was my favourite that student completely hammed it up.
Halloween is on its way, so HAPPY HALLOWEEN! I will be in Lankaran with other PCVs celebrating a small Halloween, and then I will be giving a presentation to AzETA (Azerbaijan English Teacher Association) about encouraging students to speak in the classroom. Then I am off to Baku to help with training.
Of course, I have more to write, but I’ll leave that for next time. Istanbul will be shown in pictures on my website. I had a wonderful time, and it is an incredible city. I am more than ok with going back any time. Azerbaijani is only so useful in Turkey. I could understand some of what was going on but found that Azerbaijani is great for amusing the locals who think you are speaking “baby Turkish.” I got a lot of free food speaking Azeri with the locals. More on that later.
Happy October!