Monday, February 15, 2010

One year and counting....

12 February 2010

Dearest everyone,

I’m still alive; however, I’m still waiting for the world to end since the Saints not only made it to the Super Bowl but also won the game. Having heard that people are wondering what happened to the elusive Lerik PCV, I am once again writing a marathon letter. I guess I should also note that those stateside should not worry about my long stints of radio silence, those in Azerbaijan also experience my bouts of radio silence. But on with our regularly scheduled program….

Can you believe it? We’re in 2010! I still have a hard time believing it, and February is rapidly coming to an end. Officially, this is my last year of Peace Corps; in less than 10 months, my PC tenure is over. This leaves me wondering how did this all pass so fast and panicking that I will not finish my projects before I go home. But I guess just one day at a time, and we’ll see what happens. After all, here in Azerbaijan, we live “in time” not “on time.”
As always, I’ll have to play a bit of rewind so you can catch up to my present reality. October was my last update, so November it is. November’s highlights include Thanksgiving, TEFL Training, meeting sitemate #1, and Gulafat (of course). November’s low points were hurting my ankle in TEFL training and losing the sitemate stalement with the powers that be in the office (I got not one but two). November started with me leaving Gulafat and Lerik for the first time since September. I was definitely itching on the inside to get out, but I was content Lerik. Yet, after the whole moving out drama and the emotions that came with the move, it was nice to vent to fellow Americans.

While spending time with the fabulous southern ladies of Lankaran, I gave a presentation to the local AzETA (Azerbaijan English Teacher Association) branch about encouraging students to talk in the classroom. I forgot how nervous public speaking made me, but it went well. One frightening moment occurred when the eldest male teacher in the classroom began to talk. I was sure he was going to contradict everything I just said. I braced myself for impact as he agreed with everything I just said. The whole room breathed a sigh of relief, and the meeting was adjourned. Pictures followed the meeting, and before the flash, Rachel’s counterpart patted my rear and told me, “oh, soft!”

Well, I suppose I have become used to the culture in unexpected ways. It wasn’t the “soft” comment that threw me for a loop; rather, the touching my rear part confused me. Azerbaijanis are definitely more touchy than Americans, but they touch people’s arms much like my grandmother used to. As for the “soft” part, well, that’s kind of normal. In Azerbaijan, people aren’t as sensitive to commenting on people’s weight. Here in Lerik, I’m the yaxshi topush – the good chubby. They don’t mean that I’m the chubby, good girl. Nope, they mean that I’m the good kind of chubby. It would appear that my self-esteem in that area has taken so many knocks that I just try to let it roll off now. It can be hard, but I’m “soft, “ so I think most comments can bounce off naturally.

After AzETA, I was off to Baku for TEFL training. For one week, I was to observe the trainees teach classes and provide feedback on how to improve. After much confusion, I was finally informed that Xirdalan was the community I was going to. It was a stroke of luck because Masazir is next to Xirdalan, so I got to stay with my training host family while I commuted every day to Xirdalan. The training was fun, and definitely brought back memories of my own training. PCT was a good time, but, honestly, I much rather be a PCV. Lerik is way more interesting than Masazir.

Because of the commute, I walked 4 miles a day that week in my kitten heels, and my Achilles suffered. By the time I came home to Lerik, my heel was huge and painful. My running abruptly came to an end just as winter came to Lerik. I suppose that this was the perfect season to have running banned, because some days I can skate down my 12% grade hill. (I don’t know if it’s 12% or not, but every sign says 12%). While I was helping training, I received a call from one of my new sitemates: Mason. He called me in hopes of brokering a peace before coming to Lerik. It was well known amongst the Az06 (my group) and the Az07 (his group) that the little volunteer in Lerik DID NOT want any sitemates. To his surprise, I was pleasant, and we arranged to meet at the end of the week.

On a side note: The fact that I did not want sitemates did not mean that I was anti-social or disliked people. I think I got into my head that being at site with no other Americans was the PC experience that I wanted. It was like being an anthropologist and going into the field, figuring stuff out on your own, and stuff like that. I was not going to throw my sitemates off the mountain (as the chances of me being taller than them were slim) or ignore them (given the size of Lerik that is impossible). Lerik for me was a conundrum. On the one hand, I love Lerik. It’s a great community with little harassment, beautiful scenery, and friendly people. Why would I not want other PCVs to come and help this community? On the other hand, I love Lerik. I have met some bitter PCVs, and I did not want anyone to say bad things about my community. But I do love my sitemates, and I’m happy to have them just as much as I am happy that I had my first year by myself.

Meeting Mason was the end of an era. I knew that when he came to Lerik that my isolation was over. Whether this was a good or bad thing, I couldn’t tell yet, but change comes whether we want it or not. I liked Mason right off the bat, so I knew we wouldn’t have problems in Lerik. He tried to reassure me that he wasn’t taking over my site, and I tried to reassure him that not wanting sitemates wasn’t personal.

After training, I came home only to pack my bags and turn around again for Baku Thanksgiving with the Embassy staff. That’s right, I got to rub elbows with the man who is right under the US Ambassador to Azerbaijan. Baku Thanksgiving was a lot of fun because I got to get to know a fellow PCV better: Linda. Linda is a CED (Community Economic Developer) volunteer, and she just amazes me. She has come to PC after retiring, but she’s my mom’s age. Unlike many “senior” volunteers, she strongly believes that she will learn Azerbaijani and is always studying and improving her language skills. I enjoyed rooming with her and getting to know her better. She is such an amazing woman, and I love hearing her experiences as a PCV because the older people garner more respect in Azerbaijan than younger people.

By the end of November, I was back in Lerik and anxiously awaiting the TEFL site announcements. This is when I learned I was getting Jessica in Lerik. I called her to welcome her to Lerik and make sure she wasn’t scared of me. My program manager was sure that the Az07s knew nothing of me not wanting a sitemate, but word always spreads fast amongst the PCVs. Sure enough, Jessica had heard that I didn’t want a sitemate but was keen on coming to the fabulous that is Lerik.

December marked two glorious occasions. One: I celebrated one year as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Two: I welcomed my sitemates to Lerik. As Mason says, Lerik is a site Peace Corps places you as a reward. I was nervous to get my sitemates. I was not sure how we would fit into each other’s lives. I have learned enough about other sites with multiple PCVs that some sitemates never see each other while others hang out all the time. I was not certain what tone to set or, moreover, what tone they wanted. But as with most things, time has told our tone for us.

Indeed, my world has been rocked to the core since the arrival of Mason and Jessica. But I cannot say that it’s been a bad thing. As my mom would say, they are rounding out my PC experience. It’s a bit odd to have sitemates. Whenever I want to go speak English with another native speaker, I can walk down the road and find one. Originally, I had to call fellow PCVs when I wanted American-like conversation. We can meet, talk, be Americans, navigate guesting, discuss projects, and hang out. It’s been nice to meet some new people and realise that their arrival has not ended my little Lerik world.
Suddenly, I’m the PCV expert of Lerik because I’ve been here over a year. It’s hard to think that they have only been in country in 4 months, but the company has been nice. With Gulafat, Aynura, and my kids as my Azerbaijani company and Mason and Jessica as my American company, I found this part of my service to be more fulfilling. It has been a big confidence boost in my language to know that sometimes they need my help in translating or expressing an idea. However, Mason is very good with the language and often navigates the waters on his own.

Having sitemates is like having a mini-American family here. Mason and I are like adult siblings. We offer advice to each other but generally let each other figure things out on their own. Jessica is like our little sister. We can spoil her a bit, help her out a bit more, and she more than willingly accepts our help. We probably see each other 3 to 4 times a week for coffee, a game of dominos, and to vent. Mason’s hikes have meant that I have seen and explored more parts of Lerik. Jessica and Mason are still in host family situations. Jessica, like me, lives with a single woman and really enjoys her host family life. (Female PCVs have noted that the best host family situations tend to be those without males). Mason, on the other hand, has had a harder time. I think finding him housing was difficult in Lerik, but since his organization only wanted a male CED volunteer, Lerik was getting a male PCV. I’ll give Mason this. He’s a lot stronger than I am. If I had to sleep with Nana (host grandmother) in my room, I would have blown my top a long time ago.

Now to Gulafat! I have lived with Gulafat for almost 5 months now, and it has been nothing short of fantastic. She’s the bee’s knees. Without her, my language skills would have never improved nor would I have been motivated to improve them. We spend so much time talking about everything. I try to be very honest with her, because I want her to know me. She knows that I drink in America. She knows that I speak very frankly with my parents. She’s very patient with me when I try to talk Azeri and always manages to make me feel better about my language skills.
Lately, Gulafat wants to learn English, so every night we have English lessons. Slowly, she is gaining confidence to form simple sentences, and it’s great to see what this is doing to her confidence. She is talking about going to the community college in Lerik and studying to become a primary school teacher. I’ve really encouraged her to do this because she loves kids, and I want her to be able to support herself.
In many ways, Gulafat is my best friend here, and she is the kind of connection I always wanted to make during my Peace Corps service. We share ideas, opinions, and cultural differences. Sometimes, I’m too tired to translate everything she’s telling me, but I just let her talk and talk. We’ve bonded a little too close, because now I’m even more reluctant to leave Lerik.

In many ways, I cannot picture my PC service or living in Lerik without her. I know that before I spent a lot of time in my head, by myself. But now, Gulafat and I spend 80% of our time in the same room – the room with the pech. We even now sleep in the same room. I have my own room with a bed, drawers I’ve made from boxes, and an electric heater; however, now I prefer sleeping in this room.
The biggest change in December was my sitemates coming to Lerik. I have to say that overall it’s been a mild winter. But I’m still grateful for hot coffee (coffee!), a warm pech, and hot food. I’m rarely in more than two layers, and the snow rarely lasts for more than a week. Ata insists it’s because I’m in Lerik and Allah knows that I don’t like the snow. Yes, my Azerbaijani family is doing great. They had a new PC Trainee this year but assure me that I am still their daughter and their favourite. (I know this to be true, but will not elaborate.) I miss them greatly, and I cannot wait to see them next. The problem is that with Ana and Ata it’s never a short visit. I feel like I have to stay at least 3 nights to make it worth our while. I have been very fortunate to have good host families and such an awesome Azerbaijani roommate.

In the absence of a formal Azerbaijani tutor, I’ve been reading the second grade Azerbaijan language book. Rather, I’ve been trying to read this book. I have to stop every sixth word and look up what it means. I’ve noticed an improvement, but it’s still a bit of a confidence knock to know that I can’t read a second grade book. In my defence, Peace Corps teaches us how to navigate our way through the adult Azerbaijani world in which learning words like lion, to swing, and slave aren’t really necessary. But the book has been wonderful for seeing how this language is used, and Gulafat has noticed an improvement in my language skills. Sometimes, she listens to me while I read to correct my pronunciation. It makes me feel a bit sheepish, but it’s good practice.

I also find the second form book so culturally telling in its choice of subjects and national stories. Many of the stories talk about family, bread, obeying one’s elders, national heroes from both Soviet times and even to today. It makes me want to look at my second grad text books with a new eyes and see how we imprint our children with our desired cultural nuances.

Middle December marked the beginning of Ashurah:

“Ashura is celebrated on the ninth and tenth month of Muharram. The word ashura means "ten" and is a time of fasting, reflection and meditation. Jews of the city of Medina fasted on the tenth day in remembrance of their salvation from the Pharaoh, and the Prophet Muhammad pledged he would fast for two days instead of one in this same remembrance, but he died the following year and so never fasted as he had hoped
For many Muslims there is joy in commemorating all of the wonderful events traditions say occurred on this day, including: Noah's ark came to rest, the Prophet Abraham was born, the Kaaba was built. Among Shiite Muslims, it is a day of special sorrow commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet's grandson Hussain and his followers at the battle of Kerbala in Islam's first century. It is commemorated in Shiite communities with reenactment of these events and is a time of mourning.”

Azerbaijan is a predominately Shiite country, and the community in which I live is also predominately Shiite. Women gather for ten evenings to mourn the Hussain’s death, and, of course, I was invited to tag along. I was present for seven of the ten evenings (even on Christmas eve and Christmas night), and it was quite the experience. We went to our neighbour’s house: Saida. Saida has spent all day cooking with her sisters. We were served plov and levengi until I wanted to burst and then I was given tea and sweet bread. After tea and food, one woman lead prayers, while we kept the beat on our legs. The “beating” of our legs symbolize the ritual self-flagellations one might see on TV every year around Ashurah. I also found it significant that only young boys could pray in the room with us and that they would hit their chest instead of their legs.

The evening prayers could be a bit tiring because the older women much like the older women at Momo’s would slip in and out of Talysh, making it increasingly difficult for me to follow their conversations. However, they were impressed that I could say, “Amen” and that I knew what it meant. I had a wonderful time meeting more women in the community and getting to know my neighbour more. Gulafat and I spent Christmas day making shakurbura, my favourite cookie, to give to Saida as Imam yolu (Imam’s way). It is great praise from Gulafat is you can decorate shakurbura up to her standards. I’ve accomplished this.

Christmas was celebrated more flagrantly than last year. I actually acknowledged the holiday and welcomed the incoming Az07s whom Mason and Jessica had invited. It was great to “celebrate” the holiday this year; although, I fear the rest of my service will be Amy and the Az07s. Jessica and I went to the boarding school and led class after class in a spirited and somewhat jumbled version of “Jingle Bells” which did make my spirits bright. While the others went for a long Christmas Day hike, I came home to open my presents and help Gulafat make cookies. Then it was Christmas dinner with Americans, and Muslim prayers were my Christmas carols. I think it was a holiday well spent: a blending of both worlds.

New Years once again was celebrated in Baku, and while we were not snowed in this year, I did skin my knee as I ran for the bus that I almost overslept. Overall, it was a low key holiday, and I enjoyed spending time with my Az06 friends whom I do not see enough. We reminisced on times past and were giddy at the fact that this was our last New Year’s in country. It’s not that we don’t like Azerbaijan; most of us find it hard to be away from family and friends over the holidays. I enjoyed my holidays spent mostly at coffee houses, drinking Americanos, downloading new podcasts, and catching up with stateside friends via Skype. But soon enough, the holidays were over, and I just wanted to go home to Lerik.

Gulafat was excited that I was home, and I was equally excited to be home. Now that is 2010 the end is in site! This idea is both scary and super exciting. Gulafat is already counting down the months and looks sad that it’s approaching so fast. My mother and father celebrated their thirtieth wedding anniversary in January, so Mom and Dad, sizi tebrik ediram! I congratulate you. January in Lerik was a month of settling in. Getting back into my routine of teaching, I focused on my fifth form kids whom I believe have the most potential to change. I feel that if I start them off with good habits, then Terana who is an excellent teacher can continue to build their English skills. It’s too often in this country that kids who miss the English basics just fall off the wagon because no one will go back and explain the basics to them. As Aynura said my success has been that most of my children can properly conjugate verbs into the present tense and translate those sentences into Azerbaijani.

With my sitemates, they are settling into their roles as PCVs and settling into the idea that this is the next two years of their lives. I try to be optimistic and tell them that it’ll pass far faster than they realize, while I try to be realistic and recall how hard my first couple of months truly were. With Gulafat, we are always learning new things about each other, but settling in is actually quite minimal. As she said, “You were a guest the first two days you were here, Amy. Now, you are my sister.”

Some of you have read my blog about the red rooster how kept attacking me until Gul felt it was necessary to cut off it’s head. Well, the two remaining roosters also have begun to hit me – quite hard. I’m not exactly sure why they hate me so much, but Wednesday, I was trying to go help Mason with his English club when the rooster appeared out of nowhere and jumped on my pant leg. Of course, his muddy feet soiled my freshly washed pants. Out of frustration for my newly soiled pants, shock from the velocity of the hit, and sleepiness just waking up from a nap, I started to cry. I turned back to the house in defeat because I had to be clean for class. But the black-tailed rooster wasn’t done. He hit me six more times on the way back to the house – one of those times was half-way up the stairs. Surprised to see me back so soon, Gul came out to see tears in my eyes. “What’s wrong?” “Roosters.” She looked at my pant legs that are now covered in mud. She was furious. She actually escorted me to the gate and gave me a stick. Then I was given permission to hit the rooster. It sounds a bit childish, but after making my pants dirty, I was happy to give that rooster a good whack. After returning from Mason’s English club, Gul assured me that both roosters would be dead by the end of the month. Yay!

The beginning of February marked our Mid-Service Conference (MSC). The Az06’s descended upon the Neopol Hotel for two full days of Peace Corps sponsored fun. It was the first time all of the remaining PCVs had gathered together since swearing-in over a year ago. It was really nice to see every one, especially those of us who have a habit of hiding at site. The biggest downfall at these conferences is comparing your PC experience to those around you. We have some “super PCVs” who seem to be taking on the world, but we all have very different resources at site and very different reasons for being here. So, I think our service reflects our choice of joining Peace Corps. I may not have a million and one clubs going, but I do have friendships with Host Country Nationals that some PCVs envy. I got what I came for here.

But like New Year 2009, a freak blizzard hit the Baku area literally freezing us into place. Once again I was stuck in Baku, and Az06 bunkered down to card games, movies, and friendly conversations. Once again, I was roomed with “senior” volunteers. I was so excited that Susan was my roommate once again like she was back in Philadelphia. I have to say, that I immensely enjoy talking to the senior volunteers. Dorothy and I discussed swing music. Denney explained to me how green stamps worked. Linda and I caught up on Elle. Susan and I discussed our sites. I could not have asked for a more relaxed atmosphere.

Because of the snow-in, my plans on going to Mingachavir were postponed, but I was able to attend the Super Bowl. At 1:30am, I piled into a taxi with 4 other PCVs and we made our way to the Hyatt Regency whose bar we convinced not only stay open but to give us half-priced drinks the whole game. At 3:30am, I braced myself for my first football game in a long time. Sitting up in the front with the men who watch “SPORTS” (as they said), I was definitely on edge for most of the game waiting for the Saints to pull a Saints. I’m sorry, David, I was not a believer. But thanks for taking the time to teach me about football because now I enjoy it. I sat next to Mathias a hard core Colts fan, but we enjoyed a good conversation of football in between plays. At half-time I was feeling weary, but I had made it this far, so I decided to stick it out. Most of the PCVs were pulling for the Saints out of some distorted Katrina sympathy (which I won’t even get started on), but as the sole Louisiana representative in PC Az, I did the “Who Dat” nation proud and cheered for my team. The few Colts fans left sad, but my euphoria and sleep deprivation left me light on my feet.

By the way, major thanks to my incredible mother who “watched” the game with me via text. It was nice to have a voice from home throughout the game – even if hell has now frozen over because it’s snowing in Lafayette.

I’m not back in Lerik, and not too ashamed that I haven’t been emailing as regularly as I once have. I’m settled in. I have a fabulous roommate who makes each day interesting and fun. We’re currently hiding out in our bedroom/living room/dining room watching TV as snow covers Lerik once again this winter. Y’all take care, and I’ll try to be more regular with my coverage.