Last week we went for our site visits. I went to Ganga, located in the middle of the country. Ganga is a historical town, the second largest in Azerbaijan with and population of 320,000 people and unlike Sumgayit it is actually quite beautiful. I hadn’t realized just how dark and heavy of a place Sumgayit is. It carries a real weight to it. The dark energies that hang over this city are like militaristic ghosts from the Soviet era. Perhaps it is because at one point it had the highest infant mortality rate in the world because of the chemical factories leaving an entire section of the cemetery dedicated to children. I think I mentioned before that Azerbaijan went to war with its neighbor Armenia after the fall of the Soviet Union. The war displaced (Internally Displaced People or IDPs) somewhere between 800,000 and 1,000,000 Azerbaijanis from a region in Azerbaijan called Nagorno Karabagh. I don’t know exactly how many landed here, but it was a lot, and it seems that they all live in these apartment blocks. So you have a bunch of refugees forced to live on top of each other in the armpit of Azerbaijan. I think that is reason enough for this place to totally suck. But Ganga is different. There may refugees there too, but the city is beautiful, and clean.
The point of our visit to Ganga was to spend time with the volunteers who are currently working and living there to get a feel for what it is we may potentially be doing in the months to come. There are seven volunteers in Ganga. Five of them came to Ganga in 2009, they are AZ7s, which means that they are the 7th PC group to come to AZ. I am an AZ8. There are two AZ6s leaving next month making room for AZ8s. The volunteers in Ganga tend to be very busy. The organizations requesting PC volunteers are usually well established and know the value that a volunteer can add to an organization particularly when it comes to grant writing. One of the volunteers leaving worked for an agricultural organization and 90% of what she did was write grants. Another volunteer works at the Agricultural University. She was an administrator at MIT before joining the PC, so much of what she does at the University in Ganga is admin, but she also teaches a class on American History to a group of students who know English. She helped develop the curriculum for the class with her counterpart Nazrin (a counterpart is an Azeri person that each of us is assigned to. That person is supposed to help us navigate our way around the organization we work for). Nazrin is working to develop international relations by building bridges between Ganga and universities in other countries. Her goal is to have the university be able to support an international exchange program with students, professors, and experts in the field of agriculture. This opportunity really excited me when she was talking about it. Though I’ve yet to travel through all of AZ, and have been mostly confined to Sumgayit, I do know that AZ tends to be a fairly homogenous society, with a few minority groups in the regions. Outside of Baku, you don’t see anything but Azerbaijanis, and the only reason Baku has any international affluence is because of British Petroleum, so all the money and culture (Western influenced culture that is) is in Baku (BTW, Sumgayit is basically a suburb of Baku. It’s only an hour away). So Nazrin has her work cut out for her. How will she spearhead the development of the University to attract international interest and how will the University work with the local government and businesses to meet the needs of this potential expansion? Just so you know, I probably will not end up in Ganga, and I definitely won’t be places with Nazrin as each counterpart gets one volunteer and she’s already spoken for, so don’t get too excited for me.
All the organizations we visited and all the volunteers we met in Ganga were great. Really each one of them worked for a terrific organization and all were thoroughly engaged in work. Vivian works for an organization called CARD, which offers vocational training to the underserved community in Ganga. This includes IDPs, orphans and the local asylum for the “mentally insane.” Unfortunately, people with mental disabilities are an embarrassment to this society and are often shut away in their homes or institutionalized. They have no rights and those that are institutionalized are disengaged in every way. Sometimes they spend the whole day just sitting on their beds in a drug induced torpor. CARD has started a program that Vivian helps with where they go in and cook healthy meals for the patients. They also get funding from an organization in Tulsa, OK for art classes. Some of the paintings that the patients paint are turned into greeting cards and sold to help CARD with their programs.
Azerbaijan is on the cusp of change in so many ways. Soon, terms like “the insane” will be replaced with more politically correct and inclusive terms I’m sure. My family often has the TV on and they watch Opera like shows that have guests in wheel chairs discussing how they want equal access to the things that people without disabilities have, such as education and access to the job market. Another volunteer who works up in the north started an education program with a woman who has a child that is mentally challenged. It’s obvious that people want these changes, it’s just a matter of time.
On a lighter note. Vivian lives up the street from a local Tandir bread maker. Tandir bread is baked in an upright brick oven. The oven has a large opening at the top, and is heated by wood, which lies at the bottom of the oven. Bakers take wet dough and slap it on the walls of the oven. The dough is wet so that it will stick to the wall. As the dough bakes it begins to dry and peel away from the wall. Before it falls off the wall the baker removes it and puts the uncooked side on the grate of the fire to finish baking. We bought a couple of loaves to bring to CARD with us for lunch. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like freshly baked hot bread with pendir (goat cheese) sweet red tomatoes, and cucumber. It’s one of my favorite meals so far.
A meal I have yet to try or even see, but have heard a lot about from the male PCVs is called xas (pronounced chash. The ch is pronounced like your clearing your throat). Apparently, only men eat this meal. It is made from the shins and hooves of four legged animals. It is unclear to me if it is sheep, goat, cow or all of the above. In any case, it’s a gelatinous soup that supposedly tastes pretty bad and needs to be drunk with lots of vodka, which is why only men eat it because women in this culture are not supposed to drink. Every time they slaughter an animal they put the legs out on the sidewalk to sell. The preparation includes burning the hair off, then shaving it, washing it, cutting it into pieces and boiling it for 5-7 hours. In the case of the pictures below they included the heads too, eyes still intact.
Even though I don’t like Sumgayit, I was glad to return home. The volunteers in Ganga kept us even busier than we are here, and you know how it is…it’s nice to travel, but it’s also nice to come home. With that said, I returned home on a Thursday, went to bed at my normal time, and woke up in the middle of the night by a slight queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I wasn’t too concerned as my digestion hasn’t been right since I arrived in country, so I went back to sleep, but when I woke up in the morning to go to a big meeting I had that day I could hardly get out of bed I was so nauseous and weak. The smell and thought of food made me want to heave. I called in sick and spent the entire day in bed throwing up into a plastic bag. Minaya & Ilkane kept coming in to check on me, and telling me that I needed to eat and drink. I tried to explain that there was something wrong with my stomach, but she kept insisting that I had a cold, and tried plying me with tea and soup. I thought to myself, “Geez! Don’t you people vomit and get the runs in this country because if you did you would know that the last thing I need is to shove food into my gob?” Finally, I called the doctor and asked her to kindly explain that though I appreciate their concern I’m not in any condition to eat and when I am hungry I will ask them for food. It was three days before I ate, and then it was only kasha, yogurt and rice. It wouldn’t be the Peace Corps if I didn’t get at least one bout of dysentery.