Saturday, August 29, 2009

Teshekur Edirik! (We Thank You!)

I would like to send out an enormous Thank You to everyone who helped out with Summer Camp 2009 in Lankaran, Azerbaijan. It was a huge success, and it could not have been possible without you all.

Jane and I have sent out Thank You notes to those of you who donated to our Peace Corps Partnership Program grant, and allowed your information to be released to us. However, we know for a fact that some people donated and did not release their information. Thank You to those of you. We would love to know your identity so if you did not receive a Thank You note from one of us, or if you don’t receive it in the next two weeks or so (developing country postal system, be patient!), please email us to let us know that you donated to the site so that we can properly and personally thank you. My email address is

Again, thank you so much for your continued support. It was incredible for me to see people from literally every part of my past donating to this camp including coworkers, friends, family members and even some people I will meet in the future. I am extremely encouraged by your ability to see the same vision for the world, and specifically for my community here in Azerbaijan, that I have. I urge you to continue to support other community workers in any way possible, or become one yourself. This world sure could use more people like you!

Thank you. Teshekur edirik.

Turkey and Toys...but not how you think!

Warning: This is quite a lengthy blog, but it is a wealth of information so push forward.


The first week of August was a glorious week for me. I spent it vacationing in Turkey with a fellow PCV (Johanna) and her mom (Caroline) visiting from America. We spent half of our time in Istanbul and the other half on an island called Büyükada about two hours away from Istanbul by boat.

Our goal of the trip was to relax, be lazy and simply enjoy ourselves in any and every situation, and I feel 200% sure that we accomplished just that. In Istanbul, our time was dedicated to taking walks, people watching, Starbucks, decent wine, delicious food and sleep in an air-conditioned room! We visited the historical and awe-inspiring Blue Mosque, spending a long time on the inside, taking it all in, watching people and enjoying the simplicity and peacefulness of its interior. We did not go inside the huge church that faces the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia, because it was too expensive. Instead, we sat outside, reading about it and appreciating its beauty and historical importance from a distance. One full day was spent at the famous Istanbul bazaar, which proved to be quite the entertaining experience. The salesmen at that bazaar have really got their pitches down! Here are a couple of our favorite examples:

Us: “Excuse me, how much is this scarf?”
Salesman: “20 lira, but let me see your eyes…”
Salesman: “for those eyes, 10 lira.”

Us: “Excuse me, how much is this bowl?”
Salesman: “That bowl? Oh, that bowl is usually 20 lira, but for you I give the angel price- 10 lira.”

After we had taken in a lot of Istanbul, we decided to finish out our trip on a nearby island to reward ourselves for being such faithful PCVs and accomplished tourists. We took a two-hour boat ride to the nearby island of Büyükada, which of hundreds of charming qualities boasts things such as no cars, only horses and carriages, beautiful flowers and homes, and is home to an endless supply of charming and handsome Turkish men. This small island did not have the same amount of fluent English speakers, so most of the time we ended up speaking a mix of Azeri-English-Turkish, which was another entertaining situation in and of itself.

A quick funny anecdote for you, my faithful readers. When we arrived on the first day, we caught a horse cab up to our Pensiya and were immediately ready to get on a beach. We asked the kind of concierge/host guy at our Pensiya about where we could find a place to lay in the sun. He wanted to take us to the beach where you had to pay, but we asked if there was a free place and he looked at us for a second, and then started walking away. Although one could have taken this as a rude gesture, we decided to just follow him. Well, turns out he was taking us to a beach, well sort of. We walked into a locked gate (he stuck his hand through the gate to unlock it), walked down about 500 stairs, passing a beautiful porch and then a hefty garden. Finally, we reached the water and our “beach”, thoroughly confused. Why were we confused? Well, this “beach” ended up being a woman’s private house, and we were ushered out her long dock to lay out next to her, and then our host man just kinda said a few words to the woman and left. TALK ABOUT AN AWKWARD SITUATION! I, of course, was giggling. The woman, thanks be to God, spoke some English and was actually extremely welcoming. We got the feeling that she truly did not have any problem with us sharing her dock. She was incredibly gracious and sweet, but for the two hours that we were there, the awkwardness of the situation did not ware off…not even a little…in fact, it may have gotten even more awkward. haha. (Insert Awkward Turtle here, Melinda!) The next two days, we opted for the beach where you have to pay, and let me tell you, this was not a decision we regretted in the least.

The pay beach was glorious, and by beach I mean the astro-turf complex with tons of umbrellas, lounge chairs, big cushions, water slides and handsome/charming Turkish men galore. It was perfect. We spent two entire days there, from sun up to sun down, and enjoyed every second of it, taking in the sun most of the time, but enjoying reading under the shade of our umbrellas when our pasty, Caucasion skin had had enough sun. After our time was up on Büyükada, we headed back to Istanbul, had lunch at a Mexican restaurant (YUM!) and then made our way to the airport, and back to Azerbaijan. It was hard to leave fun in the sun to get back to the real world, and that may or may not be an understatement.


Two of the main things that brought me back to Azerbaijan were the much-anticipated toys that were in my future. I’ve mentioned this before in my blog, but “toy” is Azerbaijani for “wedding”, which is something I love. I think comparing weddings to toys is dangerously accurate. Anyway, both of the weddings were relatives of my host family, so we were the envied family of the bride (in one) and groom (in the other).The two weddings were extremely different; at one point, I questioned if they took place on different planets.

The first wedding took place in Mingechevir, one of the largest cities in Azerbaijan. At this wedding, we were the bride’s family. Also, these were my host mom’s relatives with whom my host family is super close. I was most excited about reuniting with my long lost Nana! She came to live with us for a month this past March for the Novruz holiday, and we fell in love with each other. J It was so great to see her again, and have her adore me and take care of me during my time there.

Fast forward to the day of the wedding. My host sisters and I (and the other girl cousins) all went to the salon to get our hair and make up done, well, I ended up doing my own makeup for time reasons, but it was probably a good idea. Let’s just say weddings here are the place to not be shy about the amount of makeup you wear. I went in to the salon expecting to get my hair straightened with the blow dryer and came out with about 4 inches less hair. The woman was so sneaky and cut my hair while my head was looking down! Did I mention that I never asked for a haircut, nor did she ask me, and actually I even mentioned at one point that I was growing my hair out. Hmmm…Go figure! Finally, at about 6:30 or 7:00 pm, the groom came over to “get” the bride. We took a lot of pictures and finally left for the 7:00 wedding at about 7:45, arriving and sitting down at about 8:00, 1 hour late, true to Azeri style. All the guests were already sitting and eating, and there were no reserved places for the family. So strange. The location would have been really gorgeous, outside and right next to a river, except that it started raining and kept raining for the remainder of the wedding. We tried to ignore the rain, but eventually the dancing and music were moved under this covered area. It was a lot of fun dancing around with my host fam and their extended fam. And I must say, I was basking in the light of being celebrity for the night! We finally got home around 2 in the morning, sweaty and exhausted after a full and successful day.

One of the coolest parts of this wedding was that the bride and groom actually signed wedding certificates. Most weddings in Azerbaijan are kind of affirmed by religion, which as you can imagine can lead to a lot of problems if things go sour. One of my fellow PCVs actually works with an organization who is going around, teaching women about signing legal wedding certificates and the benefits of doing so. So, it was really cool to see this in action. It made me think (again!) how cool my host family is, extended family included. They’re so forward thinking!

Now, after the wedding in Mingechevir, my host family and I made the 8 hour bus ride (!!) back to Liman, and rested up for the wedding that would take place three days later. This wedding was my first tent wedding, and took place in Boladi, the willage that is next to Liman. My host mom’s husband (RIP-Allah Rehmet Elasin) was from Boladi, and this wedding was for my host family’s relatives on his side of the family; we were relatives of the groom at this one. Whenever we go to Boladi to visit, I get the same feeling I did when I would go to visit my grandparents in Greenville, South Carolina as a kid, leaving Charlotte and going to Greenville. I loved visiting my grandparents every summer, but Greenville is not exactly Heaven (although it has really improved in the last 5 years or so!).

So we arrived at the wedding site, which I can best describe as a compound type location. There were three houses on this piece of land, all sharing a garden and an outhouse, with the tent set up on the land next to the garden. All of the houses belong to relatives, and I’m guessing about 20-30 people live on that property at any given time. One of the houses was a shack and, I was told, was Nana’s house. I never could clarify if she was actually still living there or if she had lived there, although I hoped (for her sake) that she was not still living there. Everything was already set in motion, the tables were set with appetizers, drinks and bread, and there was a place for the happy couple to sit. The chefs (aka the neighbors and other female relatives) were cooking away and the musicians were playing for the tradition of a little pre-toy dancing with the groom’s family members. Chickens, ducks, cows and kids were running around and causing havoc in every direction. Needless to say, I was feeling a lit-tle overwhelmed as I walked around with my host sisters, all of us in heels. Everyone else was dressed village style, which means one of three things.

1. All men wore suits-some shiny, some not.
2. Several (usually older) women wore house clothes.
3. Most women wore extremely “loud” clothing, meaning lots of patterns, sequins, tassles, shiny stuff, make up and pointy shoes.

The fashion statements made at that wedding were truly remarkable.

After we danced for a bit, it was time for us to get into a line of cars and drive, slowly, while honking out horns loudly and without stoppint, to the other side of the willage to pick up the bride, to take her to where she would not stay permanently.

We went to her house and danced some more. Another tradition was taking place as we danced… the groom’s family takes (it looked an awful lot like stealing to me) an item from the bride’s house to keep. At first, they were looking in the chicken coop, which made me confused. Afterall, I’d just seen at least 8000 chickens running around back at the compound- what would 1 more do?! Besides, it is okay to take someone’s live chicken!? Anyway, I kept my mouth shut and kept dancing, trying no to be “too smiley” as that can evidently cause some serious damage to your rep at such toys. After dancing and waiting for at least 30 minutes, and attaining a fabulous migraine from the extremely loud and high-pitched music, the bride finally came down and we could drive back to the compound.

On the way, we followed the bride’s ride, which was fabulously decorated with gauze, fake flowers and some sort of bird-basket-y thing on top, and which was also curiously giving out money to kids on the street. When I asked why they were giving out money, the reply was simply, “it’s tradition”. I was beginning to get used to this answer, and little did I know it would explain many of the curious things that were to come that night…

We arrived at the compound and as soon as the cars pulled up, the bride, in her wedding dress, was quickly and secretly ushered straight inside the newer of the two brick houses where, I found out, according to tradition she would stay for the entire evening! SHOCK! SHOCK! SHOCK! She would not actually attend the wedding. I am not kidding. Instead, she would sit on the couch (bought and brought as part of her dowry) in her dress while all the women came in to look at her, look at the house, and look slash judge all the brand new items (that were out for presentation) that were her dowry. This includes brand new pots and pans, furniture, washing machine, bed room set, mattresses, pillows, dishes, tables and even toiletries and stuffed animals! I was shocked by all of this, but “it’s tradition” was all I got. None of her family was there, except that there was one other woman who stayed in the house for the extent of the wedding. When I asked about her, they said she was the woman who waits for the couple to do the deed to make sure the girl is a virgin- you guessed it, tradition.

So, after we went and looked at the bride, took pics with her and observed her impressive (at least to me) dowry, we went downstairs to the other side of the compound to eat under the tent. Well, at least I thought that’s what we were going to do. SIKE! We went to sit at the picnic tables that were set up under the house, and by we, I mean my host family, me and ALL the other women in attendance. The young women relatives, who were serving the men all sitting comfortably under the tent, would bring us food and drinks but only after all the men were served and satisfied. Then, as the sun went down and the men were beginning to get a buzz and dance the night away, the women were kinda sitting around or walking around aimlessly. Finally, the women, one by one, began to pull up chairs outside the tent to watch, longingly, the dancing divas. After we sat there waiting for about an hour or two (!!), our male neighbors requested a song and called us to come dance with them. We (my host fam and I) were the first women to dance. I felt like I’d been taken out of timeout or set free from prison, and was overjoyed.

You would think that that would have opened the flood gates immediately for the women to begin dancing, but not so. It took a few more songs and the hostess grandma calling people up to dance for the women to start dancing. And still, it wasn’t like a free-for-all, whoever wants to dance, come dance… but rather, a man or group of men would request a song and then call up a group of people (i.e. so-and-so’s classmates, so-and-so’s extended family, etc.), and if the woman was part of that group, she could go up and dance. Since we were part of the groom’s family, we danced a good bit, but I was still bitter about sitting on the outside of the tent.

The wedding went on and on and finally finished a little after 2 am when the group of drunken men quit requesting songs. We got back to Liman around 3 am and were absolutely exhausted. My entire family slept in the next day, not waking up until well into the afternoon.

Both of these weddings were incredibly eye-opening cultural experiences for me. Every wedding I’ve attended in Azerbaijan (4 so far) has been different, but that tent wedding topped them all!

I wish both of these couples a long, fulfilling and happy life together!