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?