Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Last Blog Post

Over the last three years, we have taken a journey together.

It started In the beginning [link], will end with this last blog post, but oh! there is so much in-between.

I wish I could sum up the best things about my service in just a few sentences, but alas. I cannot. There is so much I want to say about being a PCV, but I have to believe that it has already been written within these pages.

For anyone out there who stumbles upon this blog, I hope the information contained here will help you decide if Peace Corps is right for you (see Frequently Asked Questions [link], the PC Experience [link], PC Life [link] or PC Process [link]. I hope the stories, anecdotes, and soap-box rantings give you some sense of what it means to serve in such a distinguished institution. I have loved at least 78% of every minute of being a PCV. It is hard to imagine the rest of my life as an RPCV, but I know I can do it. Besides, I really don't have a choice. They delete my email from the group listserv this week.

For all those inquisitive folks out there who may be wondering what I will be doing with the rest of my life, I hope to post tiny (one liner) updates from time-to-time. These won't be regular, but I hope to show the impact Peace Corps has had on my life (at least for the next year).

Anyway, before I succumb to the tears threatening to fall any minute now, I just want to say:


Hörmətcilər (Azərbaycanlılar),

Sizinlə xidmət etməyə imkan üçün ən lap daha çox sağ olun. Mənim xidmətim lap əla (zorsa) idi. İndi ən yaxşı Azərbaycanlı dostlarm almışam və sizə görə mənim sevgi gücüm çoxalır. Sağ olun demirəm. Helelik deyirəm.

Oh yeah. And I am not on Facebook. You are going to have to email me [link] if you want to say hi.

Monday, December 19, 2011

I am still working?

Awhile ago, I wrote a post about "checking out" [link]. I find that each PCV goes through a slightly different, yet similar, checking out process. Work slows down and then ends completely. Good-byes are said and last meals shared. Weird handshake-hug-kisses are given and everybody starts crying.

For me, I promised to stop by (Zaqatala) for a few days on my way out of town and fetter out a final action plan for a community English teaching co-op. I also am hoping to edit the final draft of a young girl's university personal statement. I also agreed to spend New Year's with Könül's family before saying my final good-byes. Yeah. This is happening.

Three years ago, I thought leaving would be rather easy. I didn't anticipate the gut-wrenching feelings I would be experiencing or the promises that would rush from my lips (such as, yeah. Give me 6 to 8 months, and I will be back). As I sit here in Baku, being poked and prodded, I know that this is just a check box in the final chapter of Löki's life as a PCV and the beginning of my life as an RPCV.

Four Days

In 4 days, I will be an RPCV.

I find this rather unbelievable, thus I have committed to avoiding the obvious. I think this is very healthy* and although I appreciate the countless PCVs, friends, and family who call/email/Twitter questions, when my procrastination results in my very healthy and normal emotional breakdown and I finally make a post-Peace Corps plan, I will let you know.

So...more "Happy Holiday" emails please. Less, "So, what's the plan" Tweets.

*Yup. I get that this plan is a bad plan. I just have no idea why it is more scary pondering my inevitable return to the U.S. than it was preparing for three two years overseas.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Ready to Start Missing Outhouses

Just this week, Könül took me to her mother's village to say good-bye to her family and see this infamous place (infamous because we talk about it all the time, but I always seem to have an excuse not to take the 30 minute bus out there).


After a wonderful (read: WONDERFUL) lunch of fried potatoes and canned green tomatoes, we took a quick trip around the vil. Of course, I first needed to stop by the non-portable porta-potty. One of the cleanest outhouses I have visited in Azerbaijan, I have decided these puppies are not going to be something I miss. Bring on the squishy toilet seat covers and fluffy rugs!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Turmoil

That is what I am experiencing right now.

Well, that and immense procrastination.

Today, the new Az9 Zaqatala Volunteer off-handedly commented that it's got to be hard leaving after being here for 3 years.

Yeah.

It is.

I remember the day I left Alaska for Philadelphia (the staging site for PC Azerbaijan). I had signed up to ride stand-by and was lucky to get a seat on the earliest flight out of Nome. My dad and friends were waiting at the airport to say good-bye, and I barely waived to them as I bounded out to the plane. It seems so long ago now, and such a different time. I arrived in NY and hung with family - making jokes and being silly up until I stood in line waiting at the hotel to sign in and begin the next 2 years of my life. I stood, sandwiched between a young man named Charlie and another named Evan. We talked about blog-stalking each other and our ridiculous pre-service blog posts. After those awkward moments, I found my hotel room and met a person who would become one of my closest friends in PC, Amy T. (Amy and I would eventually be placed at the same site together). Later, I sat at a round table, across from a guy from Alabama (who I later learned studied Russian at his Alabama university and played in an instrumental rock band) and a couple who arrived later than late. That evening, I would find out that the husband of that duo shared the same birthday as me (along with half a dozen other similarities). Hours later, I would agree to head to dinner with a group of unfamiliar people and inadvertently try to shame a devout Jewish friend because he refused to add bacon to his veggie burger. He would also become one of my closer friends, a person who eventually (and unknowingly) lead me to the faith I now claim wholeheartedly.

Arriving at JFK, I would eat at least 4 Hebrew National hotdogs while waiting for our plane to leave and annoy a young man enough that he thought I was the most anal-retentive person alive. Three months later, we were inseparable.

In Azerbaijan, I would puzzle over why locals were not eating dinner (we arrived at the tail-end of Ramadan) and persuade an Azerbaijan to exercise with me in the early morning after less than 4 hours of sleep. Three days later, I was introduced to my host family which I never imagined would be the beginning of the next 3 years of my life.

I have had 4 birthdays in Peace Corps (one while waiting for the plane to taxi away from the Nome airpot), 4 Christmases, a standing case of ringworm that just migrates across my body, lost 15 lbs, gained 15 lbs, ate sheep head soup, and pooped in my pants.

How will I ever top all that?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

From LCF to PCV*

On December 8, I officially have been here longer than dirt, well, that's not true...but I have definitely been here longer than high-speed wireless Internet.

Anyway, the newest group of PCVs (Az9) swore-in (went from trainees to Volunteers) last week. Although I arrived a bit frustrated (bad day for mass transiting), it was a surreal moment. But, let's forget about all that for a moment and focus on the topic of this post...which is not that.

A few days after, I was finally back in Könül's home [with Könül], eating dinner and listening to her struggle to describe the last 3 months to her family. Pictures were shown, videos played, stories told, but it was obvious Könül was having difficultly capturing how her experience changed her.

Later that night, we sat and talked about her future. All we needed to do was replace her smiling face with mine and there would be no difference between us.

It never occurred to me how similar our experiences would be. For non-Bakuvian LCFs, spending 3 months away from family, living with a host fam (yup, they have to do that too), and experiencing Bakuvian life, well, it is almost as foreign to them as going from the US to Azerbaijan is for us PCVs. Dialects are different, new customs are introduced, and don't get me started on the food...Zaqatala is no Baku. Adjusting and teaching six-days a week must have been a bucket load similar to the beginnings of Peace Corps life anywhere. Geez. It seems so apparent now...

Anyhoo, here Könül is, going through readjustment after returning home, just like I will be. A little scary and intimidating, I find it ironic that just last week I was worried that in a few months, Könül and I would have nothing to talk about. Eh. Not a problem now.

*LCF=Language and Cultural Facilitator & PCV=Peace Corps Volunteer

Friday, December 9, 2011

How to Bucket Bath an Afro


You will need
1 metal bucket
1 plastic bowl
2 large washing tubs
An "eh" towel
The Process 
  1. Bring a metal bucket full of water to a boil. Performing an entire bucket bath (i.e. washing yourself too) is not recommended. You will need to boil a lot of water and you will get cold and annoyed quickly.
  2. While waiting for the water to boil, separate your hair into 4 sections.
  3. Remove water from stove and carry to your hamam. Be careful not to douse yourself in boiling hot water. That is not fun and it makes a HUGE mess.
  4. Fill a large washing tub half-way full of cold water. Pour in half the bucket. Check the temperature (remembering your head is way more sensitive than your hand) and adjust as necessary.
  5. Kneel over another washing tub. A rolled-up towel placed under your knees helps.
  6. Unbind one section of hair and using a medium-sized plastic mixing bowl (plastic is necessary), wet the section, using your fingers to help the process along. Repeat with each section, re-binding each section afterwards.
  7. If the water is too cold, scoop out some hot water and pour into the washing tub. The plastic bowl will not shatter with the temperature change.
  8. Unbind a section and work in shampoo or whatever you are using (I have been using a mixture of Castile soap and baking soda - great for dandruff). Re-bind.
  9. Rinse using previously described rinsing method.
  10. Unbind a section and work in conditioner if using. Repeat rinsing method (re-filling water bucket as necessary and dumping used water as necessary). Make sure to pay special attention to the hair line as getting water to these parts can be difficult.
Good luck. My back always hurts afterwards.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

"Checking Out"

So, there is this phenomenon that happens around COS (Close of Service) to all PCVs. It happens to each of us at a different time and in a slightly different way, but it follows a pretty common path. For now, let's call it...checking out.

I mean, that is what everybody else calls it, so we might as well stick with the verbiage, right?

Anyway, everybody checks out at one time or another. Whether it is changing jobs or moving to a new city, distancing yourself from those around you (and procrasinating packing up your crap) - this a pretty normal thing. Still, in Peace Corps it all takes on that special emotional tint (ahhhh! Spider crawling on my computer screen. Help!) that colors everything involving service.

In this case, it involves finding closure to a chapter in your life and (possibly) concluding those intense emotional bonds you have developed over the last two years. It also means finishing up grant reports, filling out all the final paperwork, and making future plans...something I am not succeeding at right now.

Anyway...speaking for myself, checking out has been a battle. In all honestly, I don't want to do it. I am procrastinating like crazy. I have no idea when I will return to Azerbaijan. I am hoping sooner than later, but...I'm currently jobless, a plane ticket costs lost of money, and I kind of don't want to increase my enviro footprint anymore than I already have - flying to Alaska is gonna burry me.

So...for all intents and purposes, this really is good-bye.

I know, I know. There is email and Skype and the U.S. Postal Service (Inshallah), but come on! It's gonna be hard keeping contact. Inherently, my life is on different path than those here in Azerbaijan and trying to maintain the bridge between the two worlds is going to be a struggle. Living here was the easy part. Now, somehow, I think maintaing these relationships will be the hardest part of my service.

Yup. I scared the spider away with my Spider-Scare-Away face.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Part 4...Cultural Differences

Continuing on with my story about how I became the PCV I am today, let's talk a little bit more about my ego.

Now, I have talked about how when I first got here, I had my opinions and my ideas [link]. Most of those opinions and ideas revolved around how to engage in community development, but some focused on cultural relativism. Growing up in rural Alaska, I fancied myself a "progressive" when it came to understanding the dynamics of majority-minority cultural living. My head was pretty big on this and no matter what cultural difference popped up, I was quick to point out [what I thought was] the underlying reason. Azerbaijanis rarely drink cold water and often blame the consumption of cold water as a cause of illness. "Duh," I would often say. If you want to make sure your water is clean and potable, you boil it.

Anyway, a few months later and these differences began to seem normal to me, almost welcomed. It reminded me that I was living thousands of miles from home and I was doing something grandiose.

It wasn't until those intense, underlying cultural differences started to erode my understanding of Azerbaijan that I got frustrated. The gender dynamic here is so very different than the US, the way people view friendships and relationships, child rearing, the absence of coffee...every way I know how to interact with others is thrown out the window because Azerbaijan are not America.

I struggled to understand how to interact with my landlord or how to console my friend when a family member died (I have since learned that a casserole is not the right way to share in bereavement). Even after three years, I am still navigating Azerbaijani culture and making mistakes daily. I know I offend even my closest of friends with ill-timed words or judgement-filled questions. Even if I lived here for 5 more years, I do not think I would truly ever get it. I am too used to being given major amounts of leeway because I am American - and that is okay with me. I have adapted and so has my community. I guess that is the real point here, communication and acceptance - and lots and lots of laughter when I do or say something silly.

Friday, December 2, 2011

I am weird now.

I mean, I was totally weird before. Who (in their right mind) relates everything to Star Trek episodes? It is just, now I can relate everything to not just Star Trek The Next Generation, but also Star Trek Voyager, and Star Trek Deep Space Nine. I am working on my Original Series references.

I have spent an inordinate amount of time watching Star Trek series in Peace Corps.

Okay. Back on topic, and not Star Trek related, I am weird. I noticed this a few days ago when I was trying to talk with a friend about faith and went off on a bunny trail about my bowel movements.

Who does that?

PCVs (soon-to-be RPCVs). That's who.

Three years of Peace Corps service and I am way more socially awkward than I already was. Now, when I see a girl and boy walking alone together I cannot help but get whiplash from staring at them. Casual touches from boy - friends make me agitated and the idea of not spending all my computer time parked in front of a space heater or floor fan seems too foreign to contemplate.

Adjusting to a different culture, a different way of viewing the world, was hard. I struggled for 6 months to understand simple concepts that even children here instinctively knew (like standing when someone important enters a room). Three years later, I have to re-adjust to my own culture after years of being away. I am worried I won't be able to do it. I am worried I will make a spectacle of myself or freak out in a shopping aisle. I worry about having normal conversations that do not revolve around how much fiber I had that week.

I know these are all normal parts of preparing for re-entry, but I feel like I am going to be the odd man out at every turn. I know. I know. I should not be worrying about this...but I am.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Doing All The Things

As my COS date gets closer, I have noticed something off-putting:
I am becoming frantic. 
Last week, I listened to 13 back-logged NPR Fresh Air podcasts. Two days ago, I catalogued all my books and brought half to Baku. Guess I will not be reading Schindler's List anytime soon (even though it has been on my to-read list for the last three years).

Doing All the Things has become kind of a mantra for me. Too bad most of "all the things" won't happen. I wanted to learn to write and read Russian. I wanted to read the entire Quran. I wanted to go to Turkey. So many things I wanted to do and now my three years are up. I've started to ask myself what the heck have I been doing with my time, but stopped. It's too late to look back on all my missed opportunities. Now, I can only look forward and make a list of all the things I want to get done in the U.S. - Geez. That's what I should have done in the first place, made a list.

Totally wrote this on my new-used iPhone, Spot.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Holiday Recycling

After three years, many of my holiday stories seem to be repeating themselves. I wrote about my first Novruz [link], and then my second [link], and then another one [link]...

I would say my readers are probably looking for something new and exciting, but, just like America, holidays in Azerbaijan are pretty consistent. Novruz ushers in spring, Ramadan is a month-long test of my self-control, and Qurban signals the 15 kilos of persimmons that I will be gifted.

Although the holidays are set on repeat, my experiences are not. My first year was spent trying to get a hold on what was going on around me. My second, I overindulged in sweets and revelry. This year, I brought it down a notch and have enjoyed the reduced speed and family time which comes with holidays in Az.

Now, I feel more comfortable about local holiday traditions and crashing friends' houses for free food. I understand what is expected of me and even most of the classic holiday phrases tossed out at one and all. Still, I miss my own American holidays and look forward to celebrating St. Patrick's Day decked in green and Labor Day racing bathtubs. Holidays are always the hardest when you are away from home, but not so bad when you have pork kebabs.

Pictures are from the St. George's Day [link] celebration in Qax.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Here We Go Again [On My Own]

Jessica is leaving.

I mean, Jessica's service is up and she is returning to the U.S. an RPCV, but the important piece to grab on here is: Jessica is leaving.

Even though I know in a few short weeks, I too will be on that peacing-out boat, watching my closest friend, confidant, and all-around goof-ball buddy cram all her stuff into a marshutka and drive away is pretty dang hard.

When I first met Jessica, I really didn't know what to think. I did not know much about hispanic culture in America, but I was beyond ecstatic to have someone to share my personal service frustrations with, a person I knew would intimately get what I was complaining about. Jessica has been more than just a person to share those awful and awesome moments with. She has been a person who not only gets my frustrations, but does her darnest to make me laugh in-between the tears. Her smile and vivacity make the grayest days exciting and her commitment to her service energized me when I didn't think I could get through another day.

She is one of those people that everybody just wants to be around. I couldn't imagine my service without her and I am beyond blessed have spent these last 2 year serving beside her. It totally sucks that she plans to live on the east coast for the rest of her life as I think she would do great in Alaska...

Or not. I don't think I have ever seen a plantain in A.C.'s.

Anyway, Jessica's leaving feels like the beginning of the end. There isn't ever going to be another time for me like this. I have no idea what to make of it, but I am going to try and make the best. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Emotional Roller Coaster

Today, something frustrating happened. As a PCV who's getting ready to leave this country, I find my emotions are on a hair's trigger. I remember feeling this way when I first arrived, but somewhere down the line, everything just sort of balanced out. I began to understand the cultural nuances and chalked a lot of stuff up to a lack of information and access to diversity.

Fast-forward to today and I wanted to dress down that curious grandpa in the most harshest of ways. I also wanted to immediately call someone and complain. I wanted to get online and rave. I needed to have my feelings validated.

This emotional stress does happen a lot when you are a PCV. It's hard, being so far away from other Americans and especially the friends and family that you know would agree with you because they got your back. I read the current trainees' blogs and I remember how it felt to just have arrived in this country and ride that emotional roller coaster. I just can't believe I am on it again.

It's hard, taking that deep breath and reminding yourself of all the things you know. When I do call a friend to complain, I often get dressed-down myself. I overreacted. I mitigated the importance of cultural communication styles. I misinterpreted the intentions. A part of me wants to explain away saying," I know, I get it. I've been here 3 years." I also know that just because I've got those 3 years under my belt doesn't mean I am some all-knowing and powerful PCV who can dictate the cultural norms. I still make mistakes. I still struggle.

It just sucks that that emotional roller coaster sticks with you for your entire service. Sometimes you are on the big climb up and other times you are plunging back down. Personally, I try to keep all the crazy contained as I know regardless of how well I explain it, I inevitably will just make my host country and myself look bad if all I did was write the negative. Conversely, writing just the positive makes for bland reading. Finding that balance, well, that is part of the roller coaster too.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

AY DA!

So freaking unbelievable! Just a few hours ago, on Jessica's final trek around town, we discovered a local market - where there are aisles, a cash register, and the pork cupeth [link] runneth over. GGEEEZZZZ.

3 years in Azerbaijan and I finally find a place that would have offered a constant bacon supply. So. Bloody. Predictable.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

I had a conversation about Azerbaijan's system of government.

Long title that has little to do with the point of this post.

So, as you all know my counterpart, Könül, is off putting new PC trainees through their paces. I am really happy for her, even while being a little lonely. I cannot believe how much in both our lives have changed since we met two years ago, but that is another post.

Anyhoo, Könül not being here sucks. I used to go over to her house at least 3x a week. Now, when evening comes, I sit in my very cold apartment watching Star Trek Voyager episodes (almost done with the final season. Tear.). I miss her house's petch and cable.

I also miss her mom's food.

Anyway, back to my story. Where was I? Oh yes, so Könül is not here. Well, about a week into my sad sad existence, I got bored and decided I would just go hang out with Könül's mom and brothers by myself.

At first, it was awkward. We would talk about Könül and I would gripe (alone) about watching a football game, a volleyball match, and a boxing tournament back-to-back. Unfortunately, without Könül to fight her brothers for the remote, it was just me against her family and we would watch more sports than even my friend Scott (a die-hard sports guy) watches in an evening.

Of course, time passed and I grew more comfortable hanging out at Könül's house alone (and stealing the remote). Her family and I started talking about other things not Könül related. I started telling more stories and goofing around with my horrible Russian pronunciation. Jessica even jumps in with her weird Azerbaijani jokes that I still don't really understand. It's fun.

And, at least once a visit, Könül's oldest brother lectures me about something. Last week, it was about the division of powers (the branches) in the Azerbaijani government. I can't say that I understood entirely what he was saying, but I did spend a couple hours with my Azerbaijani dictionary figuring out the new vocab I had learned.

Overall, even though I am sad Könül is not here, I am really happy I am developing my relationship with her family. It makes the cold dark evenings pass so much more quickly when I am in the warmth of a home. Ugh. What am I going to do when I have to leave?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Calm Before the Storm

So, a few days ago, I was hanging out in my house, watching my cinnamon rolls rise when I thought to myself: I really should get to job searching. Eh. I will do that tomorrow.

I woke up the next day, less than excited to start my Internet searching when BAM! (more like bam..., but I am using artistic license to make this story more exciting), I looked out my window to see snow blanketing the trees and icicles hanging from my laundry.

I also realized I had no power.

So, I shrugged my shoulders and worked on my DOS (Description of Service - a comprehensive document detailing everything I have done during the last three years...yeah. I was bored).

I then decided that for the remaining 30% of my computer battery life, I would read an epub version of Percy Jackson and the Titan's Curse [link].

I was confident the power would come back on.

Later that day, I finished The Emperor of Scent [link] (interesting book) and started The Life of Pi [link].

I decided to make Thai pumpkin soup and a grilled cheese sandwich.

The power did not return.

I decided the last 25% of my iPhone battery life should be spent listening to the audiobook version of The Scarlet Letter [link] (free on iTunes!).

I wrote three letters by candlelight.

I went to bed at 9:45 p.m.

I woke up at 7:15 a.m. Still, no power.

I took a shower with just my Nalgene solar lantern [link] to light my way.

I put on every pair of long underwear I own and then jeans, two sweaters, two pairs of socks, and my super slippers [link].

I boiled water and washed dishes.

I visited my favorite vegetable seller in the bazar and brought her throat lozenges (she is sick).

I went looking for electricity to charge my phone (futile attempt).

I returned home and by 4:50 p.m., the lights were flickering on and off. I unplugged my refrigerator.

I melted the ends of candles so they would stand upright in a dish.

My host brother called. We went and got tea. He showed me pictures of his most recent trip to the U.S.

I returned home to semi-constant light (8:30 p.m.).

I woke up at 7:45 a.m. and the lights were on! I wonder if that milk is still good?

(Apparently parts of town are still without power and local gossip is that it will be a week before everybody has power again. Geez.)

So, what is the point of this story? Well, I learned two things:
  1. Using an electric space heater to heat your tiny apartment in a country where electricity is inconsistent at best is not fun; and,
  2. I really should have brought more single-player board games that do not require ambient light...or, a solar-charger.

Friday, November 4, 2011

My Last Halloween

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to read a book written by an RPCV [link]. Although the book itself was not my cup of tea (I am more of an economic commentary & sci-fi fan), I was reminded that Peace Corps work is hard. For all the exciting projects and events we got going on, so much falls through the cracks. Whether it's a sudden change in plans, a failure on the part of the PCV to really explain, or a disinterest by the local community, it's not infrequent for a PCV to experience gut-wrenching setbacks.

This sucks. It's hard and hurtful and often requires quite a bit of energy to get back up, reassess, and go forward.

For me, this has happened more times than I can count - often because I failed my community in some way. The good news is that I have learned and grown and know I am a better community-based development activist because of it. The bad news is that after each experience it's gotten harder and harder to get back up. Recently, I have really struggled with this. I want to cancel events even before they happen because I am afraid something will go wrong.

Anyway, a few months ago, I knew Halloween was going to be my last big bash in Azerbaijan. It's my job to organize cultural exchange events and if I was going to get myself up once again, my favorite American holiday was a great excuse to pull out all the stops.

My dad lead the call - asking my home community (Nome, Alaska!) to donate decorations and treats. My site mate Jessica bought the pumpkins and my other site mate Mike brought the kids. Over 20 younguns showed up and actually partied. We had masks, decorations, costumes, dirt cake, and pumpkin carving. Several local counterparts (young women from the summer art program) came to help with the mask making and pumpkin carving, while a duo of former FLEX kids helped translate and explain why we carve pumpkins. If there was any reason I haven't given up in frustration, it was moments like that. Such a great note to begin saying good-bye on.

Special thanks to the community of Nome, Alaska, Jessica A., Mike R., Jane R., Aaron M., Şəbnəm, Ramilə, Tellar, and Sakina.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Religion & the Volunteer

I think I have been reading too many young adult novels because every witty blog title I can think of has a Percy Jacksonesq thing going on.

Anyhoo...Peace Corps and regligion. Geez. I feel like I am trying to pack in all those last minute thoughts into two months of blog posts. Sorry. Sorry my revelations are just now coming. I totally should've been on this years ago.

So, yeah, Peace Corps and religion. I hope by now all you wonderful readers know Peace Corps is an apolitical and non-religiously affiliated international aid/peace fostering organization. If you don't, well, read my 50 Tips in 50 Days [link] page. That should help.

Peace Corps has a very clear cut policy against [religious] proselytizing. For me, it's not hard to follow because I don't talk about religion with host country nationals. I mean, if I am with other Americans and they ask me about my religious affiliation/beliefs, I am more than happy to share, but, while acting as a PCV I following a strict, "uh huh. Not gonna talk about it," policy. This is just me. It was a decision I made early in my service and I don't regret it one bit.

I just don't like the assumption that all Americans are Christian. I also don't like the language used to describe non-Judaic religious or non-religious groups/persons (locally). For me, it's important to accept a person regardless of their religious or non-religious beliefs and I find that my role here is often showcasing how a person is worthy of respect whether you know their faith background or not. I also work hard at expressing my willingness to learn about Islam. It's a hard road to travel, but I find it ultimately more rewarding. Teaching tolerance is one thing. Showing tolerance and a willingness to learn is quite another.

It probably seems weird to you all, but it has been important to me. In all honestly, I have come to some pretty hard truths regarding religion while serving and I am glad I have had the opportunity to uncover so much about myself and my beliefs. Still, it was never my intention to journey on that particular path nor bring anyone else along for the ride. Being apolitical and religious neutral has served me very well as a PCV, mainly because by removing those pieces of my personality, I also removed many reasons why some locals may suspect me for being here. Of course, my closer local friends know more about me than others, but my religion is still a non-topic. For me, this works. I also have promised to tell everyone what my religious leanings are once I am no longer a PCV, so that probably helps too.


Monday, October 31, 2011

Flash Mob

Sorry this took so long guys...busy weekend. Enjoy a video of our summer art program end-of-program flash mob while I work on another blog post!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Peace Corps, Dating, & Marriage

Admit it, you've been waiting for this post. I mean, we all hear the rumors, the gossip, the statistics - now, let me blab on about it for the next 2 to 5 minutes.

When I first started telling my friends and family I was considering Peace Corps, I couldn't believe how many people insinuated that in 2 years I would return married. It seems like everybody and their grandmother seems to think Peace Corps is some sort of marriage agency. With only 10% of Peace Corps Volunteers being married when the enter service (stat [link]), the idea that the remaining 90% of us would pair off seemed a little unrealistic.

And it probably is. I mean, don't get me wrong. I have seen a few PCVs pair off and even more marry Host Country Nationals. I have talked with RPCVs and it seems like everybody has got a story of a couple that made it. Upon further review, I think it's probably higher on the RPCV end as it makes sense RPCVs marry other RPCVs. I mean, this experience changes you and for some reason, it just seems natural to think RPCVs marry other RPCVs.

Anyway, my point being don't bank on finding that special someone in Peace Corps. First off, dating while serving is hard. The potential partner pool is small and you often don't get to spend quality alone time (unless you think crowds of 5 or more constitute being alone). Awkwardness immediately springs to life when you watch people battle stomach issues or have mini-breakdowns because they cannot figure out how to pronounce the "g" with the little hat (gggghhhrr).

Then, you throw in the living in different communities, the focus on your work, and the attention you must give to cultural norms...Well, you end up with not a great recipe for a healthy and successful relationship.

Granted, some of these things do push you together. It's easy to latch on to someone when the rest of your life is beyond your control. You may date people you never considered before and even fall hard in just a short period of time. This happens and it's hard to gain perspective when you are in the situation. I often hear PCVs talk about the "real world" when comparing PC life to life in the US. I can't say for certain, but I think a lot of us feel like this is just a wild experiment at times. Unfortunately, even with that feeling, the consequences here are just as real as any others - especially the broken hearts...

Eh. My point is that PCVs do date and marry, but the percentage is just not as high as everybody thinks it is. I mean, if I, the most perfect person on the planet, am still single after 3 years, it probably means something is wrong with the situation, not me, right?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The End is Nearing...

I keep starting this post and then putting it off. I know I should stop writing, hit publish and then [really] begin the process of saying good-bye. I mean, in just a few short months, its gonna be that old adage
You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.
Geez. [This is usually the point where I stop writing and instead queue up an episode of Star Trek Voyager].

It's been such a wild ride. Just the other day, I came to another one of those big, life-changing realizations when I ran smack dab into another cultural habit that I have never heard of. It blows my mind that every day I learn more than a handful of new things even when I have been here for 3 (+) years.

I mean, come on!

It is just...whew. I cannot believe these past 3 years have gone by so fast. Wasn't I just celebrating turning 25 and heading off to begin my adventure? Didn't I just spend 30 minutes trying to explain to my host mom that it's not that I don't like milk it's that I cannot drink milk without horrible consequences (still have no idea how to say consequence in Azerbaijani)?

Time has really flown by and here I am, procrastinating on the next step. I still have yet to really get down to the nitty-gritty of job searching (I am holding out for my dream fellowship) and I haven't even confirmed my COS date with staff. All I got is a ban on out-of-country travel (during a PCV's first three months and last three months of service, travel outside of their host country is prohibited) and an email box full of end-of-service documents to start working on.

Geez (again)...I will keep you posted on what's what - unless you all have suggestions…

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Learning to Be Me...Part 3

Peace Corps Azerbaijan does a fantastic job preparing a Volunteer for service - maybe, they do it a little too well. When you get all those country documents in the mail, you become overwhelmed. It sounds like you are moving halfway around the world to a land unknown - and you kind of are. For me, when I got here, I started to assume (again, assumptions...) that Azerbaijanis were like Americans because people dressed similar, there was a lot of mainstream media and music going around, and nobody looked like a Vulcan [Star Trek reference!].

But don't be fooled. Azerbaijani culture is not American culture.

It took me a few months and a lot of frustration to slowly realized as much as much as they are same on the surface, the underlying factors are nothing alike (our countries' uniquely different histories should have been my first clue). I became scared to assert myself because I didn't want any more miscommunications. I wore the clothing style suggested by Peace Corps and I acted like I was told during training.

In retrospect, that was the best way to handle the situation.

My community had to learn to trust me and the only way they could learn to do so is if I showed them I was willing to adapt and integrate into their society. I had to build my own credibility before I could assert my individuality. A pretty popular linear chart shows the difference between Western and Eastern societies as the difference between individual and community-oriented cultures. Azerbaijan is a community-oriented culture. If I had come in here waving my individuality flag, I would have had an uphill battle on my hands. For a country with lots of access to mainstream media, they don't have a lot of access to Western culture. How could they? It's not like t.v. has developed a technology that inputs cultural concepts, beliefs, and traditions into your living room.

Anyway, it took me two years to figure out how to be an individual in a community-oriented society. Peace Corps had asked me if I was willing to wearing hijab to volunteer, but I never took that to the next step and asked myself if I was willing to mute parts of my personality to volunteer.

I understand that to be a part of Azerbaijan, I have to adapt accordingly. The better I integrate, the safer I am and the easier it is work. Now, there are some things that I refuse to mute:
My beliefs on child safety, human rights, the iconic influence of Star Trek...
But there are other things that are no brainers to me. I don't have to wave my individuality flag to know I am still American.

Finding this balance has been hard, but I have learned how to read the situations better. I generally wear what I wore in the US (after using my sister as a personal shopper and updating my wardrobe) and use my mad language skills to explain why I act a little differently. I think I can do this now because I took the time to invest in my community and just because I have convictions does not mean I have to be adversarial. It is work - but I think that is the point.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

FINALLY - A post about Ukraine!

Okay. Here I go. I am sorry it took me so long to write this post, but there were a few technical difficulties.
  1. My wallet was stolen.
  2. My camera was inside my wallet.
  3. I had to replace my custom made Etsy wallet [link].
  4. My friend had to email me pictures (Internet access, firewalls, and all).

Yup. Those were the difficulties. Of course, it did not help that my camera was taken in the first 2 days of my trip. What a way to make a birthday weekend spiral downward into a pit of despair...

Anyway, Ukraine was pretty darn neat. My friend Gio and I started off in Kiev and hopscotched our way to a few other key locations (Odessa and Lviv), with a day-trip to Sevastopol. Although I did not want to leave, I felt 2 weeks was a great amount of time to get a flavor for the country. The hostels were great and I very much enjoyed the change-up in culture and scenery. The backpacking scene was fantastic and we met some good people along the way. My only regret was (well, two if you count my stupidity with my wallet) not having a more solid grasp of restaurant Russian vocab, but eh. It just gives me more incentive to really get cracking on the books now.

All pictures courtesy of Gio G.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The First Two Years (Part 2)

Continuing on with this multiple parter, I am writing about how I came to be the PCV I am today. In this installment: Löki and the Miscommunications (I have just started reading Percy Jackson and the Olympians [link]).

Anyway...moving on...even with the 3 months of pre-service training, I was not prepared to deal with the miscommunications that arose between myself and my Azerbaijani counterparts. Now, Peace Corps doesn't shirk away from preparation, but you can only learn so much in the safe and protective environment of pre-serving training. PC staff, LCFs, training host families - they all have had ample exposure to Peace Corps and/or have relatively quick access to PC support services.

Take all that away and you got yourself a Peace Corps host site.

Now, don't get me wrong. It would take paragraphs to explain the amount of work PC puts into preparing a host site for a volunteer, but PC cannot cover every base.

I made the mistake of assuming my host community had the same amount of extensive exposure to the bureaucratic arm of Peace Corps Azerbaijan as my training site did. Of course they didn't. Peace Corps is not represented by the main office in [insert city here], but by the relationship a host community has with its Volunteer.

It didn't occur to me to really take the time to explain who I was, my skill sets, or why I was living in Zaqatala to anybody. I just assumed everybody knew what Peace Corps was and what I had come to do. Again...assumptions...

Anyway, I wish I had realized that I needed to build my own credibility on day one. It would have allowed me to circumvent so many miscommunications.

I get it though. We do it the US. When looking for work, I submit a cover letter and a resume. There are interviews and probationary periods. I have to earn the right to be considered a member of a non-profit team. Why would my Peace Corps situation be any different? Just because I am a volunteer does not mean people should automatically accept me, especially if I want to work with their kids.

The story ends with it took me almost a year to realize that I should be leading with the cultural exchange part and then moving on to community development. Now when I meet a new person (any new person), I take that first ten minutes to explain who I am, where I am from, why I am here, and who I work for. I try to be patient and answer all the questions in a culturally appropriate way. I drop counterpart names and talk about what I like about Zaqatala. Even if the person is just a passerby, I know I am meeting the vision of Peace Corps with every new relationship I make.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Salty & Sweet

For me, a meal is not complete without something a little sweet to finish it off. In Azerbaijan, I am pretty lucky because dining starts out with sweets and ends with sweets (the best of both worlds, moms!), so I never really have to worry about dessert when I am guesting at a friend's house.

Unfortunately, I do have to worry when I am eating alone. Making dessert takes forever! I have no idea how I found the time in the US, but just whipping up a batch of cookies here involves an afternoon of waiting for butter to soften.

Good thing I found a quick and easy recipe for kettle corn [link]! I eat popcorn. I love sugar. I can tolerate salt. Sounds good to me! Plus, you can make a batch in about 10 minutes. Check out the recipe here [link] (or look below) and remember to stick to the stove-top temperatures. Too high a heat and your corn will come out burnt!

Kettle Corn
1/4 cup vegetable oil (eyeball it)
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
1/4-1/3 cup sugar
salt

You are gonna need a large pot and its accompanying lid. Don't ever reuse a kettle corn pot once you have whipped up a batch because the sugar will burn and make things gross (I learned this the hard way).

Over medium-high heat, heat the oil. Chefs the world around will tell you to put a couple kernels in the oil and once they pop, you are good to go. Do this. It saves time and reduces problems.

Once the oil is hot enough, add popcorn and sugar. Cover with the lid and beginning making those swirling stirs. I do this every 10 seconds from here on out.

When you start to hear significant breaks between the popping, turn off the heat and empty the entire contents into a large bowl. Salt and stir. Salt and stir. Keep stirring. The popcorn is really hot right now and it needs to be cooled down quickly. Sometimes I use a cookie sheet.

Grab the water and eat!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

How To Be A Peace Corps Volunteer (Part 1)

I've been thinking about this blog post for a while. I think it is kind of funny because most of the post is about how I came into this business standing on a soapbox and well, this is a soapbox post. Eh. What can you do?

Anyway, this is gonna be a multiple parter - so hang with me as I try to hit all the major pieces.

So, let us start with the obvious stuff. As an American, I got the American-colored glasses on. No matter what country I am in, I unconsciously (and consciously) compare it to America. I can't help it. Nobody can 100% separate themselves from [enter age here] years of socialization. I grew up in America. I am American. I know we got problems like everybody else, but when push comes to shove, I really like my home country.

When I first stepped foot in Azerbaijan I had my opinions. No matter how hard I tried to bury those opinions or pretend that I was completely open to a new culture, some things just rubbed me the wrong way. I couldn't help it. No matter how much I tried, there were times when I just couldn't help but put my foot in my mouth when talking with a Host Country National. This happens to everybody. I still do it. Three years later and I still do it.

Anyway, my first few months as a PCV were rocky. It's hard when you come in as a PCV with the goal of helping and teaching and developing. The assumption there is that the community you have been placed in has deficiencies and you want to be their savior. Anyone who signs up for Peace Corps has that hope in mind - to help. Of course, if the tables were turned, I would be damn skeptical of some random Azerbaijani showing up in my home town telling me they could teach me anything besides the Azerbaijani language.

As a first year PCV, I wanted people to see me as more than just an English teacher. I got skillz beyond my native English speaking abilities. I talked about civic engagement, I explained how I could teach people to market their businesses, I hosted Earth Day events...I spent a year pointing out the holes in Zaqatala and how I (along with local minions) could fill those holes.

I never stopped to really ask people about their own civic engagement, marketing, and environmental awareness. I just assumed they didn't have these things.

Yeah. Again, if the tables were turned, I would be pissed. Assumptions make an @#$ out of...well, just me.

Late in my second year (and through the miracle of Skype), I learned about asset-based development.

Nobody wants some big-headed foreigner to show up and point out what they see as problems. Defenses get raised, excuses are made...people stop listening. If my goal as a community development specialist is to get people talking and listening, this isn't the way to do it. It definitely is not the way to be a catalyst - it's being a pessimist.

In my third year, I really struggled with asset-based development. The whole idea is to build on what the community has, to acknowledge them as catalysts and leaders in their own right. I have worked hard to not make those inadvertent judgement statements or ask the leading questions (Isn't Star Trek the best sci-fi t.v. show out there???). It is almost impossible to not to look at things with a critical American eye and get up on my soapbox.

Yeah, it is hard. I still have my opinions. I occasionally slip up, but I know that my role in Zaqatala is to build upon the successes of this community - to continue their own development enterprises, not lead them down the path I want them to go. I see the easy path of, "use this American model to create this project and BAM! everything is solved". Of course, there is little sustainability in such a Löki-initiated and led projects and the community is less likely to back me up with their support.

Getting to the point where the community trusts you and uses you as a resource takes an exorbitant amount of time (about 1 & 1/2 years). My community does not need me to "solve" anything. They have the power within themselves to direct their own future - a future that meets their needs and fits within their cultural context. I am just here to support them and offer assistance where I can.

Anyway, I still have the American colored lenses on. I have accepted this, but that is a whole other post...get ready for Part 2!

For more on asset-based development and how community development specialists can actually do more harm than good, check out:
Asset Building and Community Development [link]
When Helping Hurts [link]

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Wedding It Up

Over the last three weeks, I have been to not 1, not 2, but 3 weddings! All the young women getting married have been my or other PCV's counterparts.

Now, I have talked about weddings [link] several times [link], but as I found out last night, not every tradition I have learned is expressed in exactly the same way. For example, I just learned that it depends on how far back the family holds the tradition, but at the girl's wedding, sometimes it is just the girl (all decked out) that shows up!

That definitely threw me for a loop. Never heard of that!

So, it goes to show that no matter how long I am a PCV, I have barely scratched the surface of Azerbaijani culture. Ugh. So much to learn, such little time left...

Yeah...that is right. I straightened my hair for this wedding...

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Confession: I read junk novels.

Maybe it's because I am getting older, but I have come to a few realizations these last few years (the last 3 to be exact).

  1. It is okay to write a contraction from time to time; and,
  2. I really do not care what people think about my reading preferences.

Second realization was kind of weird, huh?

Anyway, one of my first poignant memories of Peace Corps involves book reviews. Seems like an odd topic, but you get 60+ absolute strangers waiting in an airport terminal and what's currently stashed in your hand-carry is gonna come up - you've got nothing else to talk about because breaking the ice is scary.

The point being, PCVs are a lot like the rest of the American population - snobby when it comes to books. We all cart around our current non-fiction bestsellers, autobiographies, and travel accounts like we can't be seen with a Tom Clancy novel lest our credibility as a [insert job/community title here] be challenged. I do it. The amount of classic and non-fiction literature I got covering my [highly visible] shelves is ridiculous.

I stash my mind-candy in the cupboard below.

Yup. I admit it. With all my Jane Eyre audiobooks and Guns, Germs, and Steel historical accounts, I like to indulge in frivolity (daily). If you left me to it, I would go through entire junk novel caches in a matter of weeks, I am that into happy endings.

Actually, this all goes with my theory and a little unknown fact about myself.

  1. Every American indulges in junk novels; and,
  2. I would rather read than watch television.

The Peace Corps lounge is chalk full of junk novels - too many to point the finger at just me. Everybody reads them, so why not just admit it more? From now on, when somebody asks me what I got in my bag, I am going to say Lara Adrian.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Löki's Irrefutable Best Practices on Traveling to Foreign Countries

Peace Corps service offers all sorts of advantages to a potential candidate (see my How To [link] page on tips to making your application POP!), least of which is getting out. Getting out of the continental U.S., getting out of the standard spring break foreign country experience, getting out of the developed world.

With 48 days of annual leave (over a 2 year service), PCVs like to travel. For many, traveling home is too expensive and often not advised (blog on that later), so a week-long jaunt to another country is often the ticket.

Me? I have spent my 71 days (that is 3 years of service, baby) in Thailand, Georgia, Ukraine, and Germany. Prior to these last 3 years, I had hit up just as many countries in my 24 years of living.

Kind of lame, really.

I mean seriously. Backpacking is fantastic. You get to meet all sorts of awesome (and crazy) people, try great food, see interesting things, and really grow. If I can recommend any one thing it is to get out and experience the world (and not just the beach); however, traveling should not be taken too lightly. It can be scary, weird, unexpected. So, for those of you who are Virgos like me, I have made a list to to help you plan for those worst case scenarios. Good luck!
  1. Pre-plan at least your first few nights...if you got a place to stay for the first couple days, you can start your on-the-spot planning with a local present and give yourself time to adjust to the food, time, weather, etc.
  2. Hostel it up (and bring a combination lock). Couchsurfing [link] is also fun and fantastic, but definitely spend a couple of nights in a dorm room. 
  3. Be friendly. That old adage, you attract more flies with honey...if very true. Being aggressive never gets you anywhere. 
  4. Talk to strangers, but don't accept their candy (unless you see the bartender open it up). The whole point is to meet great people and see cool things. Be proactive in the introducing.
  5. Have an emergency debit account and cash back at the ranch. I made the mistake of keeping all my money things together and well, I spent a majority of my first few days in Ukraine canceling stolen cards and crying about my camera. 
  6. Don't make plans while you are imbibing, but when you inevitably do, have a contingency plan on hand. And plan on a hang-over day. 
  7. Budget liberally. You will break any conservative budget you make. 
  8. Bring clothes that repel absorbing spills (and smells). Handwashing clothes suck. Handwashing in a hostel sink is worse.
  9. Carry a copy of your passport and stash your actual passport deep in your bag. You will thank me later.
  10. Don't drink the water. And bring Imodium, Pepto, and Tums. You will need them.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Have you people seen this?

If you have not heard, Azerbaijan won Eurovision [insert - what the heck is Eurovision? - question here] this year! That means, next year, Baku will be hosting the 2012 Eurovision contest and what an event that will be.

I am kind of considering returning just to be here for that awesomeness, but that is a whole other story...

At any rate, check out this music video aimed at educating ya'all about the coolness of Baku, Azerbaijan (and increasing tourism) for Eurovision. Of course, the two singing are PCVs here...wicked sweet huh?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Seriously...I am too cool.

I am super duper famous now. Check out this link: http://multimedia.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/pdf/returned/hotline/current.pdf

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Social Networking

So, I am gonna get to my Ukraine trip, but before I do, I have a story to tell.

A few weeks ago, I was enjoying a leisurely Azerbaijani-style hiking trip (the kind that involves several cars, picnic blankets, and shish kebab sticks) and I suddenly remembered I had a Skype meeting with the National Peace Corps Association scheduled for 6 p.m. that evening.

Of course, there was no way I was going to convince everyone to descend the mountain so I could get near a wifi source (case in point, when we did leave, they stopped to pick berries halfway down the hill), so I booted up my handy new-used iPhone and turned on its data plan. A few seconds later, I was typing away with other PCVs halfway across the world.

Yup. We went "hiking" with a samovar too.

Monday, September 12, 2011

It's Not Easy Being Green

One thing most, if not all, PCVs agree on is plastic bottles.

Huh? What? How can you agree on plastic bottles? Don't worry. I am gonna tell you.

Living overseas, you go through a lot of plastic bottles. Be it a quick (read: safe) drink of water or a shot of caffeine, a PCV's day is drowned in plastic bottles. Of course, we all cart around our handy-dandy Nalgenes and Sigs, but when push comes to shove, a plastic bottle comes out.

For me, this summer has been no different. I start each day out with four glass liter bottles full of chilled H20, only to have guests and others bring in a half dozen Coke, Fanta, and qazsiz water bottles each day. I try to reuse the bottles, save them, plan activities with them, etc, but eventually they all end up in the trash. For a while, I was planning on making a window sill garden and using the remaining bottles to store preserved grape leaves, but after the 40th bottle showed up, I had to stop collecting.

Plastic bottles are the bane of my existence. I try really hard to just drink recovery formula from my Nalgene, but I get that hankering for Qax Su and I cannot help myself...

So, here is my question I pose to you all - help me out! What should I do with all these plastic bottles?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Happy Birthdays

Happy Birthday to:

ME!!! (and Mathais)

(Well, first Liana Rose and Jessica)

And then to Meghan, Regina, Mom, and Erik!

Some of you may know, or since you have received that automated message, that I am traveling around the Ukraine until September 16th. I have several blog posts scheduled, so do not worry about getting some fun material between now and then and of course, after I return to Azerbaijan.

Until then, happy birthday to all you virgos out there!


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Close of Service: A Conference

The final conference a PCV experiences (as an attendee) is aptly named Close of Service. AS a PCV prepares to complete their two years of service, this conference, held 4 months before the PCV's official end date, provides information and closure for the soon to be RPCV (returned Peace Corps Volunteer).

Now, just the mention of Close of Service or COS, around a soon-to-be-departing group of PCVs can [almost] insight a riot. We are talking
  • Hot showers
  • Good food
  • Nighly Settlers of Catan marathons
  • COS travel planning
After almost two years of feeling like a fish-out-of-water, a PCV gets to spend hours talking about how much they have integrated and how that integration is going to affect them as they work to re-assimilate into American culture. It is a pretty heavy conference, although, everyone seems to come away from it feeling lighter...

Anyway, I just went to this conference. Mostly I saw PCVs making lists of all the restaurants they plan to hit up once they touch down on US soil...

For me, the entire conference was...hard. As a 3rd year PCV, I was not allowed to attend my own COS conference, so...that was difficult. As much as I enjoy the Az7s and have had a bang-up time getting to know them this last year, I deeply felt the absence of my own PC group. Stories and inside jokes made little sense to me and several times I felt like bursting into tears. Of course, I always was rocking a horrible head cold and my stomach had just decided to boycott food.

The only thing that really kept me from becoming a big baby was the other Az6 extendee who seemed to take it all in stride. His fortitude did quite a bit to keep me together and he often reminded me I was just  being silly. The whole idea behind COS is for the PCV to get some information and say good-bye - not only to the other PCVs, but also to begin the process of saying good-bye to their host community.

My blubbering was not helping that.

At any rate, I came away with more of a drive to figure out what I plan to do after COS and a deeper respect for that Az6 PCV. That's a good of a start as any :)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Places to Go: Gusar

Have I mentioned CBT yet?

CBT [link] or Community Based Tourism is a project-baby of two very talent Peace Corps Volunteers - one who happens to be the only other Az6 extendee.

The idea is that tourists traveling to Azerbaijan can engage in a unique and culturally fantastic tour of the country, staying in local's homes and enjoying experiences off the beaten path. Even better, a sizable chunk of the money goes to the local family/community with very little overhead paying for administrative costs. It is so totally worth it...

So, why am I talking about this? Well, because last week, I got to see the birthplace of CBT up close and personal while visiting this other Az6. Unfortunately, I was battling a head cold, so I did not get to do all the cool stuff other CBTers get to do, but I still had a fantastic time. Although a lot of people tell me Gusar looks a lot like Zaqatala, I have to tell you, it is uniquely different. The low rolling hills, cool temperatures, and the streets full of people speaking in Lezgi sure make the community stand out on its own.

Definitely worth a visit if you ever make it to Azerbaijan, check out the warm and friendly accommodations offered by CBT Gusar [link].

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hubris

Just when you think you are on top, life reminds you that having a big head is a bad thing.

So, it is pretty easy to get pretty darn self-confident in Peace Corps. First off, more often than not, you are the American. You get to describe your home country any way you want and everyone and their grandmother has got to accept your word at face value. You are the expert. You got this experience down. After more than 2 years, you feel like you know your host country and Peace Corps intimately. Any newbie can ask you anything and you've got the answer.

It is pretty heady to think you are a super smarty-pants.

Of course, something will come around and knock you back down to size. Be it another PCV  or an experience that remind you that you don't got nothing figured out...whatever it is, it will happen.

For me, it was food poisoning. That's right. Food poisoning.

Three years ago, me and my big head walked into training declaring the iron-cladness of my stomach and boasting that nothing could rock my iron disposition. "I am Alaskan. I was born to eat unusual things!" Three months and 15 pounds lighter, I thought I had learned a lesson:
Bacteria does not care where you grew up.
Of course, just last week, I did it again. "Three years and I can handle anything," I proudly proclaimed. Yeah. Right. I have not been able to leave my house for 2 days because I fear a very real Bridesmaid episode a-happenin'. New lesson:
Bacteria does not care how long you have lived in one spot.
Maybe, I have finally learned the real lesson:
Stop boasting. Bacteria can hear you and they accept your words as as a challenge.
Sometimes, the lessons just take longer to learn.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Merry Ramadan!

You would think that after 3 years, I would be able to wish someone a happy Holy Month of Ramadan using the correct verbiage...but translating "mübarek" into English is hard.

Anyway,for those of you following that lunar calendar, you know it's Ramadan...for those of you who don't know - it's Ramadan.

Yup, it has started (on August 1st actually). Now, for those of you who are still a little vague on Ramadan, check out the tag Islam Ed [link] over there on the right hand side. Last year, I went all out and tried to fast for the entire month - what a wild, crazy, informative ride that was. This year, I decided not to fas and instead created my own activity to reflect and center myself. I cannot say that it is working as well as the fasting, but in this 90 degree August weather, I just did not have the will power to forgo water all day.

So, that is that. Bone up on your knowledge of Islam, as it is considered to be one of the fastest growing religions in the world [link]. Of course, a lot of false and misinterpreted information exists, so I encourage you to try for a variety of sources when it comes to educating yourself. Or - you can always comment me!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Sanctity of Bread

If I can impart any one lesson on you all, dear readers, it is this:

Never disrespect the bread [in Azerbaijan].

It's not the cheek kissing or the Allah phrases that will mess you up, it's the odd behavior when it comes to bread. I first encountered this when I accidentally dropped a piece of bread on the floor. I had never seen my host mom move so fast, but in 3 seconds flat she had that bread picked up, kissed three times, and placed on top of the refrigerator. She looked at me sternly (like I had intentionally dropped the bread) and returned to stirring the milk.

We never spoke about it again.

To this day, I am still a unsure as to why bread is so important; I just know that it is. If I drop the bread now, I immediately scoop up the offended piece, kiss it, and place on something high up. I try to never throw old bread away, but if I have to, I wrap it up in a plastic bag and hang it from my door. It is always gone by morning.

Now, I surmise that the beliefs about bread here stem from the Zoroaster days because when Novruz [link] hits and all that wheat grass pops up, it seems like Azerbaijanis can't get enough of spring, planting, and abundance. You just seem to know that Azerbaijanis respect the Earth for giving them food and show that respect through treating bread with kid-gloves (it coming from one of the most valued and basic grains).

Of course, I could be entirely wrong, but I kind of think I am right.

It kind of goes with many of the other Azerbaijani beliefs and actions about food, but we will talk about that at a later date...

Anyway, the point is that if you ever come to the 'Baijan, don't waste bread. Don't drop it; don't throw it away, and certainly don't throw a chunk at your friend on the other side of the table. That is a big no-no...

Saturday, August 20, 2011

I came to help!

One of the hardest questions to answer is not, "Do you miss your family?" or "What's better, here or there?" It is, "Why are you here?"

Of course, the answer on the tip of every PCV's tongue is, "I came to help!" It's easy to say, has great intent, and conveys the spirit of volunteerism that is America.

Unfortunately, it also implies that there is something inherently wrong with wherever you are and your help is the only thing that will lead these poor uncouth folks to civilization.

Makes us sound kind of imperialistic and egomaniacal doesn't it?

This is the problem with the development language of the day. We talk about third worlds, helping, and problems. It's not uncommon to hear PCVs complain about old wives tales and folk beliefs of their host country. It's easy to assume that because we are from the first world, we know better.

Of course, it wasn't until I started taking graduate courses in development theory and actually being a PCV to realize some of it is how we approach development, how we interact with host country nationals, and cultural relativism.

For instance, first, second and third world terminology comes from the Cold War era [link] and implies a level of democracy and capitalism [link]. These terms are outdated and kind of rude.

Talking about helping implies that there are problems. There may be problems, but what the outsider sees versus what the insider sees is very different. Plus, I wouldn't want some random French guy walking into my home town and telling me we have a trash problem. I know we have a trash problem. As the paradigm of development theory shifts, more and more community development specialists are using asset-based development approaches. Focusing on what you got and how to increase its capacity makes everybody feel awesome.

Finally, we have folky craziness in the U.S. too. Whenever we come in from the cold, our moms and dads immediately wrap us up in blankets and hand us something hot to drink - the popular opinion being that we will get sick if we get cold. Just because we are a highly developed country does not mean we still do not have the same old wives tales as everybody else. Plus, being cold does weaken your immune system. So there.

For me, I came to help! does not mean I came because your country is third world. I came to help because your country is developing and I want to be on the forefront of that field. I want to improve my skill set and return to the U.S. to help us continue developing. I want to learn about different cultures and stretch myself to learn new languages. I want to challenge common beliefs about Muslims and create a safer and more inclusive world. It would have been easier had I learned to say all these things during training, but I can say them now and I am.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Places to Go: İlisu?

Last week, I went to one of the most infamous places in all of Azerbaijan: İlisu [link].

Now, after all the hype, I was kind of expecting unicorns and waterfalls. Instead, I got a quaint little town and a tea house.

...

Do not get me wrong. The mountain breeze was nice and the several tourist traps spoke of an increasing Azerbaijani interest in catering to visitors, but eh. I get all those things in Zaqatala.

What it really came down to was my [American] idea of side-tripping and the Azerbaijani idea of vacationing are so dissimilar you need to build a state-of-the-art subway system between the two to find any common ground.

I mean, follow me here folks. In Americastan, when it comes to vacation, we Americans Do. It. Up. We are talking waking up at 5:30 a.m. to catch our 8 a.m. flight and then heading straight to the beach. After that, we reserve a nice table and drop a few hundred on drinks and delicious food. The next day, we are up again at 6 a.m., except this time it is snorkeling and sunburns. We have a tours on horse-back and maybe a day or two on a bus touring around the island. We never take a break and we get the most bang for our buck*.

Compare that to Azerbaijanis who visit a quaint little town with a tea house. They spend a month waking up super late, breathing in fresh air, drinking tea, and maybe bathing in the natural hot springs. Most evenings are spent strolling through town with your families and spending hours chatting on the porch*.

Seriously. The difference between these two vacationing styles is so vast, it boggles my mind. Of course, over the last three years, I have come to appreciate pieces of both styles and hope to continue to find a perfect mix of the two, thus creating my perfect vacationing style. However, I still cannot get down with just the teahouses. I need an amusement park or something.

*Some artistic license was taken with descriptions. Don't sue me.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Technology Cometh.

Let's take a journey back in time...to 2007.

On second hand. Let's not. My hair was crazy back then.

Anyway, as previously mentioned (see this blog post [link]), when it comes to PC service, Internet is not as uncommon as one would think. Of course, when you are imagining your next 2 years of Peace Corps-ness, you cannot but help imagine yourself in a small rural location, days away from the nearest telephone. For some reason, your ability to g-chat isn't something you think about.

Of course, as Smart Phones explode around the world, so does your access to the Interwebs and Facebook. Personally, I have a MacBook Air (thanks Liana!), a new-used iPhone, wireless Internet, and a USB-powered mini fan in my house. I definitely did not start out with all this technology (...back in my day,you had to walk 30 minutes to the nearest Internet cafe), but over the last 3 years, I have watched the technology boom BOOM in Azerbaijan.

It has been rocky, learning how to regulate my Internet usage with my interest and want to effectively integrate into my community, but I think I have navigated it pretty well. It helps that nobody else has a personal computer or Smart Phone, so I only use this stuff when I am at home.

Which brings me to my point: few, if any, locals has access to the level of technology a PCV does. It is easy to think that a PCV is living in the life of luxury with their wireless Internet and their iPhones, but when your power goes off every day and keeping your Internet on requires hours of weird negotiating and palm greasing...well, it is easy to remember this is developing country. I still use a hole in the ground and I am often without running water. Most days, I have to figure out how to use a liter of milk because the power ain't on and it is so hot inside my apartment I consider cooking an egg on the window sill.

Just because a PCV has an iPhone does not mean they have the ability to charge it. It is still hard out here for a PCV (movie reference!).

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Best Age to Serve (in the Peace Corps)

Obviously, the right answer here is: it depends.

I mean, let's get real. If you have a mortgage, dependents, intense medical issues, you probably should not be thinking Peace Corps.

Conversely, if you are bored, lack focus, or need to get away, Peace Corps may not be the best decision either.

But, to dispel a popular belief, Peace Corps is not just a 20-something gig. If the median PCV age is 28, there has got to be some older (and younger) folks skewing the numbers.

For me, Peace Corps came after university, after some work experience, and as part of my overall career/education plans. At 24, I was ready to make a two-year commitment. I had done my growin' in college and spent a few more years figuring it all out.

For me, 24 felt like the right age. Now, I know a ton of PCVs who joined at 21/22. I am constantly impressed that they were ready to make a 2-year commitment so soon after university. I am even more impressed because I know how hard those years after university where and I cannot imagine going through all that overseas.

Takes guts.

Anyway, it also takes guts to join at 50 +. I mean, I cannot wait for my mini-skooter and senior discount at AC's (Alaska Commercial Company). The idea of bucket bathing at 50 + really has no appeal to me, so...

The point being, there really is no perfect age to serve. It really comes with when you are ready. Of course, I think I made the best choice, but then again, here I am almost 28 and well, life ain't waiting for me to finish serving.

Yeah. That is a downside.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Stress Management

I get stressed out pretty easily. Before I came to Peace Corps, it was pretty easy to minimize stress through daily exercise and constant convos with friends.

Of course, that was definitely before.

The minute I touched down in Azerbaijan, every stress management technique I knew went out the window...

  • Exercise
    • Why sure, but first you need to convince your host family that exercising is okay, then you need to figure out the shower stich (or lack of showering stich and potential for daily bucket bathing), and finally, aren't you already tired from learning another language and culture for 12 hours a day? Maybe you will have the energy to run tomorrow.
  • Confiding
    • Um...your best friends are legions away and you don't want to explode crazy all over your new 40+ PC friends - that ain't attractive.
  • Food
    • Ooo...you can definitely sneak some candy and chips, but that habit is expensive. Plus, your tummy already feels kind of weird these days...
  • Cryfests
    • Sob sessions have to be held off until late at night (if you can stay awake that long), otherwise, your host family will inundate you with a barrage of, "Do you miss your mom?"-style questions.
  • Just bottling it up
    • This works! And it is cheap, easy, and does not require daily showering. The only problem is the potential for exploding...

I have spent years trying to figure out the best stress management technique, but it still remains elusive. Of course, awhile ago, I decided that I would just use some weird bastardized mixed version of the above methods. Most days, whatever I do works. Some days, nothing seems to alleviate my stress levels and I explode. It really is just hit or miss, but I have come to expect a certain level of daily stress. It is just something you have to learn to live...

*Recently, I have started to exercise everyday (it is hot enough that cold showers feel great). This works, for now.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Describe friendship...

A couple of posts ago, I talked about what I hoped to be my lasting impact on my community: friendship [link], but it wasn't until last week when really began to understand exactly what kind of project I was trying to undertake.

Last Saturday, I asked my Women's Conversation Club to describe the characteristics of a good friend.

Of course, an hour later, I felt like we really hadn't made any sort of progress. Several girls mentioned keeping secrets and having someone to talk to that was just like them. Most of the girls disclosed that they, in fact, didn't have any friends and thought the topic was uncomfortable.

Huh?

It took me a few days, but during an impromptu tea, I had the opportunity to sit down with a small contingency from this Women's Club and kind of get at the heart of the matter: friendship definitions are culturally based.

In Azerbaijan, generally women do not really have "friends". Sure, they got acquaintances, school chums, their husbands, but that American definition of a confidant, a supporter, a devil's advocate, does not exist. I am assuming something similar happens with men, but since cross-gender friendships culturally inappropriate, I have no idea. My closest male friends are my closest Azerbaijani girl friend's brothers. I just figured out how to pronounce all their names last month (this is my 3rd year folks).

Now, for you American readers, if you sat down right now, you could easily make a lengthy list of attributes you hoped for in a friend. In Azerbaijan, that gets tricky. The concept of a friend is foreign, so during my conversations, an actual list was never really solified. Yes, women were looking for confidants and supporters, but they want someone who would not try and steal their husbands or become jealous of their possessions.

Huh (again)? Now, I do not know about you, but I know my girl friends back at home have never had to fear that I would covet their significant others or with their iPhones.

It makes me wonder if I bit off a goal that is just too big to chew. I am coming from such an American place on this friend thing that half the concerns expressed by these Azerbaijani women make no sense to me. I mean, come on now, if you don't want your friend stealing your man, don't try and steal hers! But is that simplifying the matter too much? Is the man stealing an underlying issue of something larger that I just don't understand?

Ugh, stuff like this is a constant in my life. The cultural differences between Azerbaijan and the U.S. are immeasurable. It is easy to think that some things are universal, but I've quickly learn that those things are few and far between.

So yeah. What to do now?