Adventures in Peace (Corps)

Salam!!! Nəcasən? Çox yaxşiyam!

Wow! It’s been over a month since I’ve updated my blog. A crazy month to say the least. Between getting ready to leave, saying goodbye to friends and family and finally arriving in Azerbaijan, the long awaited destination, I’m not sure where to start.

Well…I’m here, so I guess that’s where I’ll start. I’m living in Sumgaiyat. A town on the Caspian Sea. Sounds lovely and romantic, doesn’t it? I wish it were, but sadly it’s anything but. Before leaving the States, Stacey, my sister, gave me a guidebook on AZ. Excitedly, I opened the book to read about Sumgaiyat. In 1940, there were 4000 people in this idyllic town from the beach to the hills, but the Soviets quickly turned it into a swarming metropolis of high rising concrete tower block apartments that housed over 250,000 people. By 1980 the city was overpopulated and considered one of the most chemically toxic places in the world with the highest infant mortality rate. What a vision! Since the end of the Soviet rule, chemical factories are defunct and the air pollution in the city has cleared up a bit, but it’s no lover’s paradise, and I’m not sure that I would stick as much as my big toe in the sea.

I arrived in AZ around 10:30pm, Friday, September 24th exhausted. My other 62 Peace Corps compatriots and I were whisked away by buses to the Neapol Hotel located on a highway in the middle of nowhere between Baku and Sumgaiyat. I think the PC stuck us in a hotel on a highway so we wouldn’t be tempted to escape into the city, as they wasted no time in getting down to business, which started at 11:00am the next morning. For the next three days we were indoctrinated into our new lives by PC staff who inundated us with so much information that is probably necessary, but overwhelming with the lack of sleep, jet lag and the like. We also began language lessons on day one so that when we met our host families we could at least say hello and ask where the bathroom is.

On the 28th, we divided into our cluster groups and piled back onto the buses for the awaited day when we would all meet our host families (the cluster groups are the people in our designated programs that we will be taking language classes with and spending most of our time with over the next 10 weeks).  It was an exciting day. I’ve been really trying to keep my expectations at bay and for the most part have been doing a pretty good job of that. I figure if I don’t have expectations than I won’t be disappointed if things don’t turn out how I imagined they would.

The first volunteer to be dropped off was Michael. We all let out a big cheer for him as he unpacked his baggage from the bus and waved goodbye as his new family walked him into their house. One by one, each volunteer was dropped off and escorted away by a member of their family, and finally it was my turn. My new host mother, Minaya, an older woman, probably in her late 60’s early 70’s with big blue eyes, and deep red hair, made her way onto the bus. At first I didn’t know she was my ‘mother’, and when I learned that she was my mom, I’ll have to admit I was a little bummed out. Turns out I had a few expectations after all. One of which was to be in a house with kids, or teenagers. I wanted to be engaged, if not in conversation, at least in playing games.

I said goodbye to my compatriots on the bus and Minaya led me up three flights of stairs to her apartment and into my room. She showed me my bed, then the wardrobe that was supposed to be mine alone, but is not, and the table where I can do my work. I began to unpack my bags, organize my space and try to make myself at home…Isn’t that strange? I think it’s strange. I tried to make myself at home in a place that is so completely unfamiliar to me. I don’t know the food, the language, or the people. I can’t say what I like, what I don’t like. I don’t even know how to create boundaries, nor is she able to tell me what her boundaries are for me…Later in the evening, her husband, Hasan, comes home and we all sit down to eat. It was a very silent dinner, but not uncomfortable. We had chicken in a soupy broth with potatoes and tomatoes. Minaya is a wonderful cook and she makes it all look so easy.

After some time, I announced that I would like to go to bed. Hasan and Minaya come into my room and begin to dismantle my bed, which is two twin beds pushed together, with two twin futon like mattresses on each box spring and a bunch of other stuff like odd pieces of small material, old coats, large pieces of fabric, blankets, etc. I thought they were going to take one of the beds out of the room and put it in the living room for Minaya to sleep on. I don’t know why I thought this other than I couldn’t imagine what else they were doing with it. It turns out they were splitting the beds up. They put one on one side of the room and the other on the other side. Then I got scared and thought that Minaya was going to sleep in my room with me. I don’t know why I assumed this either. So I asked her, “are you sleeping in here?” using the best hand gestures I knew how. She assured me that she was not going to. I felt deeply relieved, and as it turns out their redecoration plan made much more sense as it did give me more room to move around.

When I woke up the next morning Minaya asked if I wanted to eat breakfast. I looked up exercise in my dictionary and told her that I wanted to do some ‘tapshiryg,’ She looked at me and said, “ha,” which means “yes,” and I moved the rug she placed in the center of my room, between the two beds out of the way and began to do some yoga. Minaya grabbed a chair and watched me practice for 30 minutes. I have no idea what she was thinking as she said nothing to me when I was done, and was rather expressionless, but she obviously didn’t mind, and neither did I.

Last night, Aynur, one of the Language and Culture Facilitators for the Peace Corps came over. She is AZ, but is fluent in English. It was so nice to have her here, as she was able to interpret all the questions that Minaya, Hasan and I had about each other. They wanted to make sure that I was comfortable and welcome me into their home asking me to help myself to the food in their kitchen. And they of course asked me what every AZ person asks every PC volunteer, “Are you married?” AZs cannot understand the concept of a woman not being married, living alone, and not wanting to have a family. If you are single after 25 years you are considered an old maid!

Minaya and Hasan have three grown children, two sons and a daughter. Their daughter is married with two children ages 17 & 18, and their son has a new born that is four months old. The third and oldest child is apparently married, but is having marital problems, which is why he is often here.

The apartment we live in is small. There are two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and two sun rooms off the kitchen, and my bedroom.  The AZ people host volunteers for two reasons: one, they need the money. The PC pays them 100 manat a month for room and board. The average income in AZ is about 160 manat per month, which is less than $160. The other reason host families take volunteers in is if the hosts have kids they want their kids to learn English. The apartments buildings are dilapidated. They need so much exterior and interior repair, but the AZ people in general are clean, clean, clean.

Overall Hasan and Minaya are very gracious hosts. We cannot communicate, but we sit together in the evening. They watch TV and I read or do my language homework. I feel like I’ve earned the respect of Minaya because I do not expect her to wait on me hand and foot. I wash my own clothes, clean the dishes after a meal, keep my room neat and tidy and try to respect their home. So far, it’s a nice relationship. We’ll see how it goes after the weekend. I have Sundays free and I’m not sure how I will communicate that I will go out with my friends in town. The rules for men and women are very different in this country, and even though I’m a grown woman, by AZ standards, my life is not my own.

So, I think that’s it for now folks. I will try and keep the posts coming more often. My access to the internet is spotty at best. There are internet cafés all over the place, but the ones near me are for men only. There are some in town that are co-ed. However, those are difficult for me to get to during the week. The PC keeps us busy the first three months with all the training.

I hope everyone is doing well. I love you all!!!


Minaya & Her Son Saleh


8 responses

  1. P o E

    can’t wait to hear about your sunday in town with your PC friends! i miss you!

    October 3, 2010 at 1:17 am

  2. What a wonderful posting. Thanks, Denie. Situation sounds pretty good, overall. Lots of wonderful detail! Lots of adjustments to be made. Might I suggest dressing up like a man so as to gain access to the internet cafes to communicate to us more often; sounds like it could be a script for a movie. I wonder what would happen if you simply went into one as you are; could very well meet a man! Keep the info flow going whenever you can. Can’t wait to read your next posting.

    October 3, 2010 at 2:20 am

    • Our LCF walked me and two other women in my class to an internet cafe after class today. They stuck us in an area that is covered and has 3 computers so no men can see us. Our LCF asked if it was OK for us to come here regularly and the guy working at the counter said it was fine as long as we worked in the little room. Drag may be a good solution too. I’ll have to work on my costume.

      October 4, 2010 at 7:30 am

  3. Oh, one more thing. Minaya looks like she could be your bubby. Glad to read she’s receptive to you.

    October 3, 2010 at 2:22 am

  4. Lori

    Wow, Denie – you are an amazing writer! You’ve created a great picture of your life there. Thanks. I couldn’t do what you are doing there – it sounds very challenging but you seem to be handling it beautifully – I’m impressed. How are your language skills progressing? Can’t wait to read your next blogs – where’s the women’s internet cafe located???? What does Hasan do for a living? What do their son’s do? Will you meet them and their children? Do any women work outside the house? Do they stay in the house all day or do they go out shopping and/or visiting? Have you seen any religious observances yet? Love you and miss you, Lori

    October 3, 2010 at 8:29 am

  5. Great post Deanie! Minaya does look like she could be your mom. Can’t wait to hear more. Love you!

    October 3, 2010 at 10:25 am

  6. Josh

    Hi Glendene,
    Wow, you are half way around the world! In foreign territory. Your writing is absolutely wonderful: evocative, descriptive, vivid. Thanks for sharing your experience. We love you much.

    Josh and Susie and the girls.

    October 3, 2010 at 9:55 pm

  7. Ida

    Hi Glendene,
    So glad to hear that you are adjusting well and that you feel as comfortable as one can feel in a strange place. The host family sounds very nice and happy to have you. Can’t wait to read your next post.
    Miss you!

    October 4, 2010 at 11:59 am

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