14 & 15 March 2010
The best description I’ve heard about life in Peace Corps is “the days drag on but the weeks fly by” (thanks, Corey). This observation is so very true. While I cannot believe it’s almost half-way through March and Martin is now 20, as I write this letter I cannot help but wonder why this day is just taking forever. It’s definitely a boring, slow Sunday with the trifecta of foggy, windy, and rainy. Seriously, they are bad enough on their own, but all three is just a bit too much. For a bit of good news, it was shower day today, so I am clean and already looking forward to my next shower (next Sunday).
With the weather being so nasty, the electricity is also being finicky coming and going without a moment’s notice. The fickle electricity has the women in town in a panic as they try to bake for the upcoming holiday: Novruz – the celebration of the new year/spring. Novruz is this week; and it is a holiday which you cannot ignore nor want to ignore it. Novruz combines all elements of Azerbaijani culture and places them prettily on a khoncha. A khoncha is the centrepiece of the Novruz table. Mental image time: picture a large round tray. In the centre of the tray, there is saucer of growing grass called samani. A red ribbon decorates the samani. Moving out from the samani, you will see that the tray is filled with sweets and nuts. Sweets include pakhlava (baklava), shakarbura, and gogal. Nuts are of the peanut, hazelnut, and walnut variety. Dyed eggs are also placed in the khoncha. On the edge of the tray, coloured candles representing each member of the family sit waiting to be lit.
Everything in the khoncha has meaning and despite how random, odd, or contradicting an item may seem, they find a way to be together. Family is a central to Azerbaijani culture. They take care of each other, and once adopted into an Azerbaijani family, you will always be family. According to Azerbaijanis, those who are not home/in a home for Novruz/the New Year will be homeless for seven years. The growing grass and dyed eggs point to Azerbaijan’s Zoroastrian past. Jumping over the bonfire seven times comes from Islamic tradition. Sweet making becomes neighbourhood activity with the women spending hours helping each other make hundreds and hundreds of sweets. Nuts, which are ridiculous to crack, symbolize the hardness of life here from time to time, but there is a reward to persistence. And of course, the hardworking women and girls of Azerbaijan do most of these preparations.
I think you may be please to find that this email will be a lot shorter than my last marathon letter. Not that much really happens in a month here; every day can feel the same. School is going well. Mason has started a couple of conversation clubs which I like to attend. One of his clubs was filled with my seventh and eighth form kids, so, of course, I had to come. I enjoy clubs more than teaching because the kids who attend my clubs actually want to improve their English. They may be a bit rambunctious, but they come under their own volition and know that I can kick them out of the club. I am in the process of developing a club idea that will hopefully launch either this summer or next school year. I am very excited about this club and will fill you in on the details as soon as I can figure out how to articulate it. The rough outline is an intense English-language club for serious students who want to drastically improve their language skills. It will set up as hour lessons or hour conversation clubs once a week. I want to hand select the students who attend, and it will admission will be offered to students regardless of their level. I’m looking for students who have the ability to learn English. This club will be offered for students, not adults; while children are very frustrating to teach, I find it extremely rewarding. I’m in the process of sorting it out in my head, and I hope to bring it up with my program manager next time I’m in Baku to help get more logistics knocked out.
Meanwhile in Lerik, Gulafat and I continue our English lessons. She is improving and can form basic English sentences. Her vocabulary is limited, but she’s trying hard. We still mainly communicate in Azerbaijani; however, we are a bit conflicted about that. Her goal for me is that I learn temiz (clean) Azerbaijani but wants to learn English herself; at the same time, I want her to learn English and want to become excellent in Azerbaijani. I’m sure we’ll figure it out in time. My favourite moments with Gulafat are when we stay up talking about random stuff. We’ve discussed tampons, where we learned about sex (she was shocked that parents tell their children about sex), my dreams for the future, her dreams for the future, and what’s wrong and right in our countries.
One night’s discussion was girl v. woman usage and connotation in both American and Azerbaijani society. I said the difference between girls and women lie in age. It has no reference to a female’s sexual activity or lack their of. Calling a female a woman is a sign of respect. That’s why we say things like “young woman.” Gulafat said that the title of woman is given to a female after she’s married because it connotes she is no longer a virgin. She told me that as an unmarried female I am a girl in Azerbaijan. To call me a woman would be an insult to me and could throw my reputation into question.
In Azerbaijan, a PCV straddles two worlds: her community world and her PCV world. I hang out with my sitemates and get enough America-time where I don’t have the urge to go to Baku. We cook together, blow off steam from the latest disappointment, laugh about the clumsy interactions with locals, and, when needed, create a little America long enough to relax. However, at the end of the day, I’m still relieved and happy to be in community “Azerbaijani” world. Gulafat teases me that she won’t allow me to leave site, and I always feel guilty when I do leave Lerik. I hate knowing that I’m leaving Gulafat alone. Please don’t ask me what it’s going to be like when I return from the Peace Corps. I don’t like to think about it.
This year has proven to be quite windy. When the wind blows, you know the electricity is about to flicker out, and only Allah knows how long we will be ishiqsiz (without lights). The winds used to remind me of when I was little playing in MomMom’s yard in the country near Iota. Surrounding you, they gently push you to your generation and create a small space of one’s own. However, lately, the wind has taken a more menacing attitude, pushing and pulling you whichever way they fancy. Going to school can be quite interesting. I can never tell which direction the winds originate as they whip around. Along with the fog, these are Lerik’s reliable and distinguishable weather features.
A couple of weekends ago, I went to Lankaran (the site next door) to visit PCVs and to attend the AzETA meeting. I always love the contrast between these two sites. We are so close to each other, yet worlds apart. Lankaran is one of the largest cities in Azerbaijan, has a large English speaking community, and a university. Outsides of Baku, it has the largest and most active FLEX community. FLEX is a US State Department program that allows students from former Soviet Bloc countries to study in the US for one year of high school. It is extremely tough to get into. Out of the 2000 applicants every year from Azerbaijan only 40 attend. Half are from Baku or the Baku area. The projects pursued in Lankaran exist on a completely different plane than the ones I attempt in Lerik. In Lankaran, I feel as if I just walked in from the country. The women seem more fashionable, wearing pants. For that matter, I see more women period. The roads are a labyrinth, and I don’t see chickens or cows in the road. Their bazaar could eat our bazaar six times over. It’s a fun place where you can buy absolutely everything. It is always great to visit Lankaran; it’s always even better to come home.
In a reverse, this past weekend, my sitemates went to Lankaran, and I stayed in Lerik. It was just like old times. I did miss my sitemates, but I relished the old feeling of knowing I was “alone.” Lerik has become home, and when I am alone here, I know where I fit in here. I am not speaking English to anyone and go about my business. Sitemates have come, but in the end, Lerik (the place I know and love) hasn’t changed. It was refreshing to see this.
Tuesday is the “last Tuesday” or Torpaq Chershembe (Earth Tuesday). It is the last Tuesday before Novruz/the New Year. Before Novruz, we celebrate four Tuesdays. Each one represents an element: su, od, kulek, and torpaq (water, fire, wind, and earth). Water purifies the earth the fire re-energizes, and the wind cleans, allowing the earth to be reborn and start a new.
On that note: Happy Novruz!