Tuesday, April 27, 2010

New House

It's been a little while since I have posted anything and there has been many changes to my life here in Tovuz, Azerbaijan. Recently, I moved into a new house that my friend here helped me find. It really is quite big for just myself and can say that I lucked out. I made the decision quite late in the game and was all determined to stay with my host mom until I talked with a lot of people who were moving out. I am about to turn 28 years old and thought I was really going to miss out on having my own space and actually living on my own in a foreign country so I made the decision. It was really hard to tell my host mom who could not understand why I did not want to stay with her. She actually has been trying to blame my friend for talking me into leaving her, which I had to explain was not the case. It's hard for Azerbaijanis to understand why someone would want to live on their own because not even men do, everyone lives with some of their relatives. I heard everything from, well don't you like your mom? to aren't you going to be afraid? Now that I have settled in I can tell though that my conversation club girls are excited about coming over and really want to get started on a Cooking Club.

I think it's a great example to set for a woman here to move out of her host family and the exciting thing is that after moving out guesting is actually a lot more fun. I am away from Azerbaijanis for a good part of my day and when I go over to their house to have dinner it seems in a way that we both appreciate it more. Of course, it helps me to not have to spend any money or time on food that night, but also when your living with a family theres this obligation to be around and sometimes you turn down guesting opportunities becuase of them. I have a lot more freedom and even though I sometimes get lonely it's been really worth it. Having a house though does add a lot more problems to the mix of your life. For one cleaning is so much harder because I have to go outside for water and there's no vaccum cleaner, washing machine, or dishwasher. You spend a lot of time trying to keep everything up and I didn't realize also how many problems I would have since I moved into a house that no one has lived in in some time.

1) Fridge wasn't working - got that fixed
2) Heater - has a clog and almost killed myself and my friend after the room filled up with carbon monoxide. Thanks Jessi for saving our lives.
3) Gas leak in my shower - I have to turn on the water heater and open all the doors / windows then shut off the gas before I shower each time.
4) Western style toliet that doesn't flush - I have to get water to flush it and it definitly can't handle multiple people using the bathroom over a weekend so I need a plunger. Never thought I would wish for a squat toliet, but it's so much easier.
5) Power going crazy - I turn on the lights and then plug in my computer and everything goes crazy - luckily after the power went completely out for two days they came and fixed everything.
6) The elusive slime bug - I have no idea what the hell it is or when at night it decides to slime all over my kitchen, but I'm going to keep a close watch out for the day of my revenge. It slimed all over my cleaning pad and then crapped on it.

I guess the importance of each one of these problems is really learning how to think on your feet and make things work. It's a lesson that most of us have learned already even only being in the country for 7 months. Volunteer life is so different and my children will hate me for having experienced all of this because there will be no excuses.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Beginning of Great Adventures

So I am now at my organization after having ravished a doner, I know that sounds really bad, and wanted to jot down this awesome adventure I just completed. I woke up this morning to really great weather so I sat on the swing by my house and wrote down some thoughts. My host mom actually pushed me a little too while she was feeding the chickens. I said to myself, today is the day you need to do something all yourself. Having sitemates mean you spend your off time most likely hanging out with other Americans and I've been traveling a lot so some good me time was really needed. I love to go exploring and had never been down to our castle. It's not a real castle, but one they built near the entrance of the city that has a restrauant near by. It was not open and so I looked over to the river and saw a way down.

The river isn't really that high and has rocks that break up the little water it has so you can actually go far out into the river. It started just with I want to check out the water and then I'll go home. I saw the forest though and couldn't help myself. Now this is not Zagatala forest or other ones you might imagine. It was clear that these trees were planted some time ago in vertical lines, but it was good enough for me. I found my tree with a rock to sit down and just think, something I had been envisioning for some time. After that it just continued with me wanting to go a little farther and I actually found a picnic area where the Azerbaijanis go when it's Spring. A clearing with trees and stones, which looked like graves and a little hut with a bed where I sat imagining I was someone else. I was actually some distance above the river walking along a semi-mountain for around 4 hours.

It was really great and liberating because I was all by myself. I sang to my heart's content and even danced to the embarassment of the forest. There was no wildlife so I didn't have any close encounters. I then called Lorena my sitemate who lives in the village to tell her where I was and that we should all go hiking here tomorrow in the morning. I was quite confident that if I just continued along the river I would end up on the other side of town where Josh and I once walked to. This proved to be really wrong.

After awhile, I started to see the railway tracks and as I got closer thought that I would just go under them by getting down to the river or just cross them if it came down to it. Then there was this fence that bordered off where I needed to go to get pass the tracks. I saw that it ended with just a little grass that I could slip over without falling in so I went for it. Bad Idea!!! As I started to look around on where I could go next I hear this man yelling at me from above and realized it was a policeman. He kept asking me over and over again, hara gedirsen? (where are you going?). Ofcourse, I didn't know and do not have the language ability to really explain what the hell I was doing out in the middle of nowhere by myself and a woman. All I had was my walking stick so I started to point out where I started and if it was Olar to pass over the tracks. The whole time he's yelling at me and then into his radio where I see two other guys across the river looking quite agitated. Finally, he just had me come up to the tracks and I really didn't know what was going to happen. I had my phone on me just in case I needed to call the Peace Corps if I did somehow get arrested. He was really cool though and just told me that I couldn't walk along the tracks, but could go down and over.

About that time, I see this woman with what looked like a turban on her head walk onto the tracks across from me and they start talking about, where in the world this girl came from and where was she going. The whole situation was a bit absurd and I couldn't help but to laugh and believe me they either laughed with me or at me. So I crossed over to the tracks where she was at and started to realize that I was really far away from Tovuz and made it to one of the villages at the basin of the large mountains. It came time for me to swallow my pride and ask if I could get a taxi. So that's what I did and it cost me 5 manat. Thank goodness I had the sense to bring money with me and that I ran into some nice people to help the lost American.

This was my great adventure and has given me the courage to have lots more.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

For The Love of Women

Last Monday was Women's Day here in Azerbaijan and it brought up a lot of feelings, questions, and thoughts about the status of women in this country. I do not want to start a political discussion just merely to state how great the women are here, but yet how limited their lives can end up being. In America, women are actually able to make a significant amount of decisions about how their life will be and live independent lives. We make the choice to stay at home or when we will be married and to who. Going to college and then working or living alone are just what people do and so being here it is frustrating at times to realize that women just do not have the ability to make those decisions. It's not really the government more than tradition and culture. The highlight of the future for a lot of the young women I work with is their Toy (wedding), but there are some that have different goals yet may be forced to give those up for marriage. It's the thought that these brillant young women with great souls and questioning minds will have to give up their dreams or hopes at such young ages, like 23 or 24, that bothers me.

The family is the most important component to society here and I really do appreciate that. It's much different then how I was raised being far away from my extended family. The issue I see though is that young women and men are not able to really live independent lives even after marriage where they will live with the man's family. I do not have a complete understanding of why, but can speculate that it's due to economics, culture, and religion. Even the men do not have a wide variety of choices on professions or how to live differently then everyone else, but at least they have the power over making decisions when they are an adult and married. A lot of times women here will not work after marriage or they will work as teachers and then come home. Due to strict gender guidelines, there is no real appropriate place for women to gather socially. Women are not allowed to frequent any places with a majority of men so that means tea houses and internet clubs are off limit. Currently, I am writing a grant to buy computers and set a resource center specifically for women so they have access to the internet and computer courses. I hope this will help, but it's hard to make an impact.

So much here is based on the reputation of the woman or man. There are certain things that women can not do or they will be talked about badly and it would ruin their chances of being married. I get away with a lot just because I'm an American so I want to encourage these young women to change, but I am limited due to the fear of somehow negatively impacting how the women will be seen in the community. The issues here with women's independence really will only be changed through generations. I hope that the women I work with will give their daughters an opportunity to make more decisions becauseI fear it's too late for them. I will in my two years here see the young women I work with get married and I hope they will be happy, but I worry they may not be.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Guide to Guesting

I thought this would be a useful guide for all those venturing to enter into the Peace Corps and by chance assigned to Azerbaijan. Guesting probably applies to other countries as well, like Armenia and Georiga, but here it is a real experience you'll enjoy several times a week for the rest of your service. I actually can say that many PCVs actually survive on guesting when money happens to be tight or when your host mom only cooks you potatoes for days on end. It is also the best way for you to use your Azerbaijani, get to know your community, and make great friendships.

First, understand that there is a process to guesting and it can not be interrupted or you will spend at least 15 minutes trying to excuse / explain yourself. Expect to be at someone's house for at least 3 hours and Always / Always tell your host family when you go guesting or you will be forced to eat once you get home, again. The fact that I've lost not a single pound here is testimony to not realizing this needed to be done to save my stomach from exploding.

So, the meal starts like this: tea: piping hot tea with your choice of various cookies, cake, chocolates, and sometimes gummies which my friends buys especially for me since there awesome. Also, when you have tea you always have jam and I will stress how important trying the jam is for getting in with the women. They love their jam and love anyone who eats it while saying how tasty everything has been.

Next, the main course: do not be afraid to tell people if they ask what you want to eat exactly what you like. I always list off dolmas, kabob, kitaf, plov, etc... If I am going to be forced to eat mass amounts of food I prefer to eat at least things I really like. Also, the drink of choice is kompot which is very sweet juice they make themselves or soda.

Tips to the main course:
  • Don't be afraid to start eating right away - they are waiting for you to start before anyone else.
  • Take a little each time, but understand that you will be required to eat more than everyone around you. Plan on taking at least 2 plates of food so that's why I make it small or eat more meat than bread, etc...
  • You have to eat bread with your food, you can not get away with not doing so without a major headache on your hands or at least I've not figured out the trick.
  • The women will yell Eat! Eat! so be smart on what you chose and how much.

After the main course, you will again have tea and this time probably more cakes. You basically repeat the beginning of the guesting at the end with having jam, etc.... Leave room for fruit which they love to have at the end of a meal becuase you will be asked to eat.

The question you will hear the most during guesting is, "why are you not eating". That's why it's important to have a game plan and to tell your host family.

I hope this guide helps and I will also stress how much fun guesting can be. I love going over to my friend's houses or my relatives who are all crazy as hell. I'm stuffed with food through the suffering have really gained an understanding of the people here by being invited to their homes.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Snow and more snow

So everyone told me to look out for this horrible month called February, "just make it until after February and everything will be okay." I'm making it, but God this month really sucks. I guess it's because I'm a Florida girl now living with snow everyday for the past week and dreading the thought of another day in the cold. I'm dealing with it. It could be the fact that I learned my organization is most likely going to have to close becuase of no money, I fell on my face and now only have a red spot but had a huge scrap under my eye, was stuck on a train for 20 hours trying to make it to Baku, and now struggling to breath since I have basically the plague. Everything really happened all at once. So I'm a tad depressed. I can't wait until the warm rays of Spring shine down on Tovuz and I can sit on the swing outside of my house reading a great book without a care in the world. Until that point I have to write a Business plan for my organization which we have to put in effect immediately and then begin writing a grant we need desperately to survive. If all things go well then I can say this organization has a chance to be sustainable and if it doesn't then I'll just become a YD independent contrator. I'm hoping we have the time needed to make a difference because my director is great and has been working for nothing since the beginning of the financial problems.

Everything here is at least communicated to me at the very last moment and it's very challenging to make a difference when your not really in the loop like you should be. I'm not the only one having problems, which makes me feel better and I do realize that I wouldn't be in the Peace Corps if I wasn't dealing with things like this. It's been almost three months so I can't be too hard on myself and can say it's been quite easy starting my English Conversation Clubs / Computer Clubs. This month will be the challenge on trying to get other projects started.

So far I am working on getting a Creative Art Workshop for the holiday here called Novruz where children can come to create water color paintings of the different elements. Starting business seminars for college students and adults in the community, which I will be starting this Saturday so wish me luck. Getting a Writing Club going for the Writing Olypmics in April. Tutoring students for the GRE & TOEFL tests. Starting an AZETA branch here in Tovuz.
Lot's of lofty goals and ideas. Not all of this I am doing myself, everything I am doing I am working with Azeri and PCV counterparts. It's a lot and I need to prepare myself for some of it not working out so I can be realistic on what are my real priorities. Now the real work begins.....

Other than the work, my host family is fantastic. My host mom is really awesome, she does these little dances when she makes fun of me. Has tucked me in almost every night since I've been sick and has me addicted to this Mexican soap opera doubed over in Azeri. I have no idea what the hell is going on, but we debate who is a good girl or bad guy. I will no doubt probably just stay here the whole time I'm here as long as my sitemate moves out so I have a place to drink and smoke. An outlet is always needed in Azerbaijan. My sitemates are great though and I am really fortunate to have easy going /motivated people around me. This month also I am going to start visiting other areas of Azerbaijan, which will include: Feb - Ming March - Lankeran / Lerik / Belagayn (maybe). I've decided once a month I will travel out of site to see other people and as much as this country as possible.

So even though I'm having a crappy month so far - oh did I mention it's VDay today - there's still lot's of things that are going well and lot's of things to look forward to.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Just Being Different

Sooo here I am in the computer club, actually not the only woman in the place due to my far off site mate skyping with her boyfriend next to me, and realizing that being different has now become normal. Last weekend, I talked to a fellow volunteer who had just gotten back from the land known as America and it was scary what she talked about. Being overwhlemed by so many people and too many choices, missing your simple life, and being saddened a little that your not so popular back home where you can melt right into your surroundings. Here everything I do is noticed and everytime I walk down the street it's liking walking on the cat walk in a new fancy outfit from some famous designer. Some people loving the creation others scauffing at how ridiculous it looks. It bothered me a little in the beginning, but now it doesn't really phase me anymore - with one exception - when your standing/sitting someone and this guy just stares as if he's been starving for weeks and your a beautifully cut / cooked steak. You can't really divert your eyes because of where your at and you dare not stare back for fear he'll start talking to you (Quite Annoying). I've started staring though too, like it's contagious, I see these little Russian kids with blonde hair and blue eyes and stare with the single thought of hey you look like me. They turn around or catch my stare and give me the same look as if we both understand we're different and in a way they sympathize too. People are not mean to me, quite the contrary actually, they just stare like I'm an animal at the zoo.

Everyone here has of course dark hair, dark eyes, and wear a lot of black. I'm 5'11, long light brown hair, pale skin, green/brown eyes, and love wearing color. I thought at first when I was in training that being at your permament site one had to really emerse themselves into the culture and make sure that they were always a good Azeri girl. I thank the heavens now that I was placed in the Wild West where there is an ability for me to be myself. I can do a lot of things that other women can not just because I'm American and I take advantage of that. I think the largest part of me being here is just being different and confident about that. How can I truely express what it is to be an American if I don't act like myself? So I stick out all the time, but I've really embraced it and the people here have embraced me for who I am. Even when they look with horror as I walk down the street eating and drinking from a bottle, I love those moments.

I make these observations because no one back home can understand what it's like being here so helping to describe the people / country / or strange events that happen to me is the only way I know to put things into perspective. I love this country, love my host mom, and adore my conversation club members.

It's a good feeling now that I've been here for more than a month and have a great group of Azeri's that I work with. Problems are always around and I have to remind myself to take things slower, but the women that I work with are super eager to be involved in my projects. Soon the focus will be on their projects with me just organizing in the shadows, making things sustainable. I was really made to do work like this, in a country where I still can't speak the language. Everyday I'm amazed with the types of reationships I make and the amount of people that are interested in working with me. Being positive is the only advice I can give to those thinking about the Peace Corps because it makes the difference between wanting to go home everyday or being excited about the next two years of your life. I can't wait to see how things will work out in the end and what I will look back on once I'm on that plane back to America.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Life in Tovuz

It's been sometime since I last updated my blog and a lot has happened. I have officially sworn in as a volunteer, which definitly was one of the moments in my life where I was most proud of myself and wished my family was there to witness it. Shortly afterwards, I moved to Tovuz and have been adjusting to life in the wild wild west. Tovuz is located between Armenia and Georgia in the western part of Azerbaijan. This town was actually founded orignally by Germans and now is one of the most liberal areas in the country, but liberal is a difficult word becuase it still seems quite conservative compared to life in America. The people here are different then those in Sumgayit and it's quite refreshing. I've seen smiling faces in the streets, husbands and wives clearly in love, people who look like me (Russians of course), and people who are extremely eager to be my friends or help me with my work. The town itself is not clearly a city, but could not be considered a village because of the size and amentities. Life in the village is really different from what I see when I visit Lorena the AZ 6 in the village near by. There everyone knows her and what she has been doing, no privacy to be heard of, and the markets do not even have a sign. We literally had to ask several people and then went into this random door to buy a wide range of items from what seemed to be a bomb shelter - we determined this was where we would hide if zombies or war broke out.

My host family here in Tovuz is really great. It's actually just my host mother and myself living in her winter house. There is two houses, one larger one that is quite hard to heat so I have not yet been inside and a smaller one just out back where we are currently residing. It's really a great place with this gigantic wooden / metal swing that overlooks the yard that is filled with lot's of fruit trees. In the summer this place is going to be gorgeous and I can already tell the amount of hours I will spend on the swing. I have two host brothers and a host sister, but none of them actually live with us.

As for my organization, we are not really doing anything yet. I work for Regional Cooperation & Community Development Center, Tovuz branch, which really serves as a information center for the community. There are some projects that we have received grant money for, but she really doesn't know yet what is active. So far I have started a small English club where I am teaching English, but hope to soon get into the schools where I can begin after school programs or computer courses. The goals here are mainly to get funding for computers that would be designated for women to use. In Azerbaijan, women do not enter the internet cafes and no one really has internet in their homes. The reason for this is mainly the fact that men frequent the cafes and play games or look at porn. Women as expected to stay at home for the most part, especially if they are married, and if there are areas with a majority of men it will look badly on them if they hang out in those areas. It's all about your reputation in this country even to the degree that women are isolated from being able to socialize or work. There has been success in other organizations and PCVs getting funding and setting up internet areas for women so I am excited about working on this project.

Right now everything is an opportunity, but I have to remind myself that things work a lot slower here in Azerbaijan. This is my time to spend observing and guesting to make good contacts that I know who will follow through with the ideas they have. I am very fortunate to have such a great site and sitemates. I can see myself here for two years and actually missed it when I went to Baku for the holidays. There will be a lot more exploring coming up soon and tomorrow my artist friend here is going to take my sitemate and me to a farm that is about an hour away. I am really excited to see more of the area around here.