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


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.