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


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.


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.