Sunday, November 30, 2008

Cultural Exchange

My Thanksgiving this year was one of the best I've ever had. We had a huge dinner at my host family's house with a total of 20 people, half Azerbaijani's and half Americans. We each cooked a dish and brought it over to make one of the most beautiful buffet's I've ever seen. The Azerbaijani's were extremely impressed with the buffet style of eating and wondered why us girls weren't serving everyone. haha It was truly one of the most unique experience of cultural exchange that I've ever been apart of. Before we ate, each person stood up and told one thing they were thankful for, even the Azerbaijani's! My friend, Tony, who speaks Russian translated the English into Russian for the Azerbaijani attendants, and then the Azerbaijani's spoke in Russian so that he could translate that into English. Then, we sat around eating and conversing about differences and similarities in holidays for both cultures. It was such a special night, one that will forever be written in my soul. Not only was their great company, but delicious food too, quite the international setup.

Yesterday we had a cultural day that was set up partly by the Peace Corps, partly by our group. In the morning, my language group went over to Amy's host family's house where her mom taught us all how to make Vegetarian Dolma, which over here is called "yalanchi dolma" or lying dolma because it doesn't have meat! haha. I say all of us, but I forget that Josh, the only boy in our group, was forbidden to help cook. He sat around watching us while drinking a nice cup of tea... not quite so unreluctantly. ahah. Then, the Peace Corps had set up a concert for us at the musical school in Sumgayit (our training city). We were there for about 3 hours, listening to amazing children musicians and singers and watching the dancers. It's something I imagine Meemaw would LOVE! It was very impressive and a nice cultural day event.

As for this week, the countowns begin. From today, I have 11 days until I officially swear in to the Peace Corps Azerbaijan. I have 12 days until I move to Liman and my 2 years officially begins! I have 1 week of Azerbaijani language class left, and 1 week until my official language test! yikes. I cannot believe my training is almost over.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Give Thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

I'm sure you are all participating in some lovely celebrations with your families from all around. I, too, am celebrating with my "family" here that includes my host family and a ton of US friends in the Peace Corps. We have planned a huge potluck dinner and couldn't be more excited. I am definitely thankful for these people being in my life. I'm cooking mashed potatoes and I'm going to be thankful for that, too!

What are YOU thankful for?!?!

p.s. I had the Iranian version of Snaps today, you know the kind of stale tasting cereal with the frog mascot?! It was a snack I found at the store next to our school- I had that along with a pack of Strawberry Yogurt flavored Mentos. I appreciate the randomness.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Oh the places you will see...

At this point in time I cannot think of a creative way to start this post so I'll just get right to it.

This past week I visited my permanent site, Liman, for a few days and fell in love. After initially meeting my coordinator from Liman on Monday and Tuesday at a conference put on by the Peace Corps, we made the trip together from Baku to Liman, a 5 hour ride on an old school style bus on a bumpy bumpy road. It was dark when I arrived so I didn't have much of an idea of where I was or what the town was like. My new host family was very welcoming, with food on the table, just waiting for me to arrive. After we talked for a bit, I was off to bed, exhausted and sore from traveling.

The next day, I woke up bright and early, to ensure that I could have a full day at my new school! My host mom, who is a Russian teacher at my school, suggested that I wear pants because she swore I would be cold. Pants was FINE. BY. ME-- skirts and tights have quickly become evil to me. My 11 year old host sister walked me to the school, which consisted of walking out our gate, turning the corner and walking through the gate of the school, which is called School #1. How original. I am very pleased with how close the school is... I was already adding up all the extra time for sleeping this would provide me :) My coordinator was waiting for me at the front door and immediately ushered me to the Direktor's office (principal). I walk in the office, and to my surprise the Azeri version of a Danny Devito-Robert Dinero mix of a man is sitting behind a desk anxious and excited to meet and greet me. We sat in the office for about an hour while some other man made tea and served us all tea, 5 cups of tea each, to be exact. In Azerbaijan, it is important to know that when you drink tea, it must be accompanied by something sweet to eat. In our case, we had Sneechers (snicker's) cut up into little pieces. The man originally cut it into 3 pieces for 3 people- makes sense right?...but then the direktor instructed him, in Azeri, to cut it up into smaller pieces because "there are women here".... I found this to be pretty funny, but little did I know there was more to come from this man!

After we had our initial meet and greet session, and allowed for enough suspicion to build up throughout the rest of the school as to who this blue-eyed girl was going into the direktor's office, we began our tour of the school. First, a few little fun facts: the school consists of about 1,000 students, which is pretty big, even in Azeri standards. The 8th-11th forms (grades) meet in the morning from 8am-1pm, and the 1st-7th forms meet from 1pm-5pm. There are approximately 10 English teachers. It's a one story building in a U-shape, with a huge soccer field (made of cement) outside. It's brand new, 2 years max, and is really really nice. I feel extremely priviledged to have such a nice school.

Okay, so, back to the tour. First stop: Teacher's Room. I walk into the teacher's room and there are chairs lined up on two of the four walls, facing each other, and then a big desk in the middle of those, kind of off to the side. Women are on one wall, while men are on the other. The direktor takes me and my coordinator and sits us on either side of him at the big desk. Basically, I have walked into a staff meeting, which may or may not have been the first in their history. He gives a very long speech about me and about speaking English and about conversation clubs and maybe even about the weather that day. I was beginning to lose focus because all I could see was everyone staring at me with huge smiles on their faces :) Then, the room fell quiet. I just continued to smile, not knowing what was going on. Finally after what felt like 2 hours, my coordinator said, "May you speak a few words?" Needless to say I was caught off guard and had no idea what to say to a room full of adults who speak Azeri, Turkish, Russian, Farsi and probably some Talysh (the regional language) but definitely no English or Spanish. All I could muster up was that I was so thankful to be there and thank you for letting me come to your school and I'm really excited. So profound, Jackie. But honestly I could have said anything and they would have still loved me. Azerbaijani's are great like that.

Second stop: meeting the entire school. This portion of the tour would last from approximately 9:30 am until 4:45pm with a 45 minute break for lunch. The direktor was so patient with me, but mostly just excited and proud to show me off. We walked into every single classroom and my direktor would greet the classes with a loud and proud, "Good Morning Childrenssss" I got the BIGGEST kick out of this and almost lost it, literally every time he said it, that and the many "Sank Choo's" he said to the teachers for allowing him to interrupt. Again, in every class, he would ask me to say a few words. By the end, I'm pretty sure these kids knew my entire resume, all about my family, my hobbies, and all my friends, by name. Their favorite name was "Liza" for it's sheer unfamiliarity, and "Sara" because that is, of course, an Azerbaijani name. I felt like a celebrity. I felt they were so thankful for me. And most importantly to me, I felt so energized about being there. I feel as though my direktor was supporting me already just by showing the students that no matter what level it was, he was using English to speak to them. It seems as though he truly believes in the importance of learning English and is hoping that my being there will encourage the students to realize the benefits of learning English as well.

After I had finished up my business at the school, I went with my coordinator, her two sons and one daughter to her house where she cooked me an elaborate, traditional Azerbaijani feast including plov (rice), toyuk (chicken), tursh xiyar (pickles), and even levengi (a regional delicacy that consists of cooking nuts and onions together, forming a sort of sauce/paste... I LOVED this so I'm excited to have it more often), among other side items. I was stuffed and exhausted, so after dinner I returned to my host family's house and went to sleep with pleasure and ease.

Everything was wonderful about Liman. It's a quaint little town with about 14,000 people, trees everywhere (pomegranate, persimmon, etc.), a park, very few cars and lots of friendly people, who all know each other. I'm glad to be in a small town because I feel like I will be able to have more valuable relationships and more wide-spread support for events/clubs/ideas I will have in the future (Inshallah!). **Note: Inshallah is the most common phrase used here. It means "what God wants" literally, but is also used to mean "hopefully". It's not just an Azeri word, but is used in several Islamic countries around the world, I believe. I love this phrase and will add it to my lifelong vocabulary. ** Although the town was great and my host family extremely welcoming, there is one thing that outshined the rest of the experience. Laney, you will be proud to know that I have gained a new skill. My 20 year old host sister, who works at a bank in Lankaran and who is just awesome all around, taught me how to KNIT! I am so excited about this because I have a feeling that there are going to be several winter days where I'll be sitting in the house because it's so cold outside! Azeri people are not fans of cold, wind or snow in general so they expect the same value from us, and yes it is a value. I just got an idea...

List of skills I have gained since being in Azerbaijan, that I can think of right now:
1. squat toilets. end of story. nuff said.
2. i know how to make lavash, basically Azeri tortilla.
3. I can knit! I'm not good yet, but i still have time.
4. Azeri language proficiency
5. bargaining. I'm a pro at bargaining at the bazaar.

I think that's pretty *&$@ good for 2 months in. Oh yeah, today is my 2-month anniversary of being in this country. Yay Azerbaijan!

So, Thursday is Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and I'm sad to not be with my family on this day. However, to make up for it a group of us is getting together. I've organized a potluck dinner, without turkey so far. There are a lot of vegetarians among us and personally, the sides are better anyway. I am obviously making mashed potatoes since my fabulous aunt taught me how to make such a difficult yet coveted item. Other items on the menu include mac-n-cheese, green bean casserole-ish, stuffing-ish, homemade apple pie and the ever traditional coconut curry vegetables. :) Thanksgiving in another country has to be a little out of the ordinary! We are thrilled about our Thanksgiving gathering, but not as much as my host family! They have been looking forward to this meal ever since I told them on the first day it was my favorite holiday.

Okay, this is getting a little out of control so I will wrap it up. My last thought will be a quote to think about. I am reading an intriguing book called "Salam Pax, the Baghdad Blog" which is a compilation of blog entries by a young man in Baghdad circa beginning of the US's war. It's revolutionary and begins with this quote which made me really think, so hopefully you will have the same reaction.

"The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do." - Samuel P. Huntington


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Please excuse my radio silence!

It's a beautiful Sunday here in Azerbaijan. Usually I would write a long post, but today I'm feeling a little apathetic. I want to be outside experiencing this awesome day. Quickly though, my site visit was awesome, I'm so excited about Liman. I miss you all! I'll write more later!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Week of Nard, Expats and American Cuisine

A lot has happened since I last wrote!

The US has a new president, my sister survived her 21st birthday (thanks be to God), I went to my first Azeri "toy" aka wedding, I received a package from Scottie and Lindsey, I learned how to play and subsequently became obsessed with nard, helped cook gumbo, had my first highly anticipated trip to Baku with a sleepover at my host family's house to follow, and I found out my permanent site!

Quickly I will say a bit about our newly elected President. I think most know where I stand personally, but mostly I just want to say that this is historical. I'm proud of our country and anxious to see what will happen over the next 4 years. It's very interesting to be apart of the international community at this time in history. Let me just say that Azerbaijani's and others on this side of the world are very happy with the outcome of the election. It's nice to have a positive image to the rest of the world, and makes me proud to be serving our country right now.

About my permanent site: I will be heading to Liman village right outside of Lankaran in the very southern part of Azerbaijan on December 11th, so soon! I'm so excited about it! My school is evidently brand new or recently renovated, it's hard to know, and the director and english teachers are excited about having a Peace Corps Volunteer. Liman means "port" in Azeri so it's pretty close to the Caspian Sea, which if you know anything about me, you know I'm pumped about being close to the water. Lankaran is known for having excellent cuisine, hot summers, and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables most of the year round. I've also heard that they have a dialect of Azeri that I will not understand. When I told my host family I was going to Liman, my host sister started dying laughing. All I could do was laugh with her and then try to figure out exactly why she was laughing- evidently it was the language factor, but I'm never really sure :) haha For now that's pretty much all I know; however, next week I get to meet one of my counterparts I'll be working with and make a 4 day trip to visit my site and my future host family! My entire group is really excited about our sites. I'm relatively close to most of the good friends I've made sor far, and those that are farther away will make a nice vacation every once in a while. Public transportation in Azerbaijan is widespread and pretty easy. Finding out my permanent site was an emotional experience, and honestly makes this whole experience that has thus far felt kind of camp/study abroad like, more real. And I couldn't be more happy about that. I feel at peace with that fact. I feel that I am ready for the many challenges I know I will face in the next 2 years. Bring it on! (Sara, what are you thinking is the appropriate response here?!)

The Azeri wedding was priceless. Although extremely different from American weddings, quite possibly the exact opposite of, I had an absolute blast! The afternoon leading up to it was the most stressful thing I've experienced in a long time. My dress failed the "you can wear this in Azerbaijan" test, I saw a fight between some marshrutka drivers in the middle of the road, we failed to find a hair salon to do our hair because I was looking too much like I was wanting to spend the big bucks or something, and my host family was shocked when they saw me in make up for the first time! When we finally got in the car there, I was exhausted. Have no fear though, once I arrived to the wedding hall, 6pm sharp on a Thursday night I was willing and more than ready to partake in the wedding traditions. I ate a ton and danced even more. My entire host family, extended relatives included were in attendance and were showing me off to all who would listen and stare. They thought I was an expert Azeri national dancer, and continued to ask where I had been trained... my moves must be pretty sick, in a good way, that is. The food was delicious. Any time you would take a bite, the servers would bring more food and a new plate; a sip of orange Fanta, and you were sure to get a refill. I have several pictures, and if I can ever figure out how to upload photos, they will be the first to make it.

Nard. oh man. Nard=obsession. My friend and site mate, Josh, recently invested in a nard set/board thing and his host family taught him to play. He, then, taught me and I have become obsessed. It's funny because the first couple of times you play, or maybe forever, if there is a single Azeri person around, they are standing over your shoulder, "advising" you on the moves you should take. AKA: if you think for 2 seconds, your piece has already been moved for you. But once I got the hang of it, I couldn't stop playing. One night this past week, my language group got together and cooked gumbo for my friend Amy's host family (and ourselves of course). Afterwards, I played nard with her 11 year old host brother, who has clearly been playing nard since he was conceived. There were two priceless moments during our game. Frist, you all should know that I was getting killlllled before we even started playing. Then, I started noticing his face becoming worried, but with a smile. He rolled the dice and then didn't move his pieces. I decided to question him and he was basically like, "don't ask, you need this, I'll let you catch up with me for a second", to which I replied with a boisterous laugh that distracted him from the obvious sign I was wearing on my forehead that read "Stupid" in black, bold letters. Then, nearing the end of my ass-kicking, pardon my french, he slyly moved 6 of my pieces off the board (finish line) and then proceeded to make a shoo-ing, waving motion like "can't you make anything interesting here?!" but did it with the most innocent little smile that just made me, true2form, giggle, and remember why I love these people so much. So, the moral of the story is, nard is great, and even if you don't learn by watching typically, you have to run with it here.

Other exciting things: my package from Scottie and Lindsey was so fun to receive- it had all the girly things and "necessities" one would ever need in AZ! :) Last night, my friends Johanna and Lexi spent the night after an eventful trip to Baku, the capital, which involved some interesting ex-pats, a gorgeous and surprisingly European-like big city, some delicious tex-mex style nachos!, and a much un-needed McDonald's meal that felt like Heaven and then quickly turned into something my body was nooooot having. haha Later today, we're making pizza, the dough is rising as we speak.

Overall, I am very happy over here. I am pleased with the timing of everything and proud to be in such a great country, with amazing people (US and Azeri). It's very exciting to be in a country that is quickly becoming a big player in the International scene, and to see firsthand how that affects different populations and regional areas of the country, not to mention the financial status of everyone here. Peace Corps is a great organization and is well respected here. I cannot wait to get to my site where I can begin forming more meaningful relationships with people that are anxious and willing to act to create change. I will be writing more about that in the future, and more specifically about my site when I get back from my visit next weekend!

I just have to add in the fact that 3 flies are on top of each other right in front of my face on top of the computer I'm typing on, and have been for a solid 15 minutes. One keeps leaving and coming back. Quite the distraction, but somehow I've made it through.

Vessalam. (That is all)

Sunday, November 2, 2008

November will be big.

So this is a big month, beginning with an even bigger week. Presidential Election on Tuesday, my sister Sara's 21st Birthday on Thursday.... God help us all.

This past week I began my teaching Practicum, which will continue into this week, finishing up this Friday. Everything went as smooth as could be expected, which is really not so smooth here, but nevertheless keeps us on our toes. The schedule, nearly 2 months into school, is still not set. We found ourselves planning for classes that were non-existent. Eventually, I stopped planning until the hour before class began. The children are, for the most part, awesome. They are so eager to learn and participate in the activities we planned, even if they have no clue what they're saying in English! Tic-tac-toe, where you have to say a sentence to put an "X" or an "O" for your team was one of the craziest, but most fun things I have ever done with a group of kids. Overall, I love teaching, I knew I would. I feel like it's something I was born to do... now, if only I can muster up enough energy every day to do it! It really makes me appreciate the awesome teachers I've had in the past.

My host family continues to be awesome. I feel so priviledged that I get to live with them and that they let me in to their lives. Southern hospitality "ain't" got nothing on Azeri hospitality, that's for damn sure. Yesterday my mother memorialized her father's death, God rest his soul, with a huge dinner. Almost all of her 9 brothers and sisters were there, with their children and grandchildren! It was crazy and exhausting but so much fun. If you ever think you need a confidence booster, you should go anywhere in Azerbaijan where there are older women.... "ayyy, gozel"... "Ayyyy geshengdir"... "Ayyy buuteefuul". Anytime I say anything in Azeri, even if it's just "Salam" they are super impressed. I'm pretty sure I'm going to come back with a huge ego. There are worse things I suppose.

I knew yesterday would be a good day though, let me tell you why. As I was leaving my house to go to school, I shut the gate behind me. I glanced around to take in my surroundings as I saw an old man shuffling by. He looked at me for a while as I tried to pretend I wasn't looking at him (nothing unusual), but then the best thing happened. As he turned his head, he confidently and loudly said, "Goot Morning"... I laughed not so quietly and all I could give him was a giddy "Good Morning." Then I continued walking, listening to my Ipod. Usually I listen to Alanis Morisette or some angry rap (you know to get ready to face the world with a straight face, something very hard for me!), but that man had put me in a good mood so I switched over to Celine Dion's version of Feliz Cumpleanos.

Other things that happen this month:

1. I find out my permanent site on November 14th. I'm anxious but somehow not nervous. I know "que sera, sera". Good lord, I'm so lame. Don't hate on my cliches! Sometime later in the month I get to visit my site, which I cannot wait to do.

2. November 15th I get to finally go to Baku. It's been built up so much I have to wonder how great it will actually be when I get there. I'm hopeful...

3. November 6th, although I don't get to be with Sara to celebrate what she sees as this world's biggest holiday since Jesus was born, I do get to go to my first Azeri wedding. Oddly enough the word for wedding in Azeri is "toy"... they seem to agree with my thoughts on marraige. This is a big deal in this culture, so I cannot wait! I'm going with my family who thinks I'm an expert Azeri National Dance dancer... this could be disasterous.

4. November 17th I hope to go with my 16 year old sister and her friends to some play in Baku. I don't even have words for what this will be like.

5. Thanksgiving. My favorite American holiday. I've informed my host family about this holiday and about the fact that it's my favorite so they have graciously invited everyone from my group over to do whatever we want to. I think burritos and apple pie are on the menu.

Well, that's all from me this time. I'll be watching the elections on my friend's family's satellite TV on Wednesday, hopeful for our country and its relations with the rest of the world. Until next time...