Well, I did it. I made it through pre-service training (PST) and on December 9th I officially became a Peace Corps volunteer. I can hardly believe I made it because there were parts of it that really sucked and made me question time and time again why I chose to leave the comforts of home. Training certainly wasn’t the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, but at my age it often made me question why I voluntarily put myself through the pangs of learning a new language, creating a whole new set of friends, living with a family that I cannot communicate with and often felt stupid in front of because after 2.5 months I could hardly say more than when I first arrived in Azerbaijan. I think the lack of understanding the language is one of the most frustrating parts of the experience thus far. It puts a barrier between me and the non-English speaking people in this country that I really want to get to know. These are the people that have not lived abroad in America and don’t have an American perspective. I want to be able to strike up a conversation with the old man who sells fruits and veggies at the corner stand, and remembers when the Soviets ruled this country. I want to hear his perspective on Azerbaijan, the people and how it’s changed for good and bad over the long years of his life, but at the rate I’m learning the language at, I’m not sure that will happen anytime soon.
There is also the expectation I had of what I wanted my Peace Corps service to look like. For me, when I think about countries where volunteers serve around the world what comes to mind are the deserts of Africa, the jungles of Southeast Asia, the farmlands in Latin America, and the islands in the South Pacific. These places often serve as poster countries for the PC. When I read stories of volunteers serving abroad, idyllic pictures were painted by their descriptive words. I wanted to be in a village milking cows, plowing fields, walking to the village’s school house to teach class, help my host mom bake bread in the stove outdoors, and sit around the fire at the end of the day listening to the locals play their instruments while elders told stories of how hard things USED to be. Instead of the idyllic, I have what some might call the ideal. I have all the modern amenities I need. I can buy a pair of sexy high heeled boots if I wish to, I can get my eyebrows threaded, most of the time I have full access to electricity, which means that my computer, iPod, Kindle, phone, etc. can be fully charged at all times with the exception of the occasional power outage, and when I get home in the evening we all sit in the living room and watch TV at decibels the deaf could hear at.
And, while I have been challenged far more mentally than physically, and there have been times when I wanted to escape from the loud TV, the family arguments that I really did not want to be privy to, and the overbearing concern my host family in Sumgayit had for me if I stayed out after dark, when my new host family from Xachmaz came to pick me up on Dec. 10th Minaya, Ilkane and I stood at the door and cried while hugging one another goodbye. I cannot deny that along with the frustrations also came a sincere bonding between me and the Hasanova clan, especially Ikane. There were times that Ilkane and I sat and talked for hours communicating through broken English and a dictionary to translate the words. There is really so much that can be communicated through body language, an exaggerated gesticulation of ones hands, a smile, a tear, and photographs. Photographs are a great way to share a story of ones life and adventures. I also have the World Book Encyclopedia on my computer, which has a great atlas. Ilkane and I explored the world many times over. Of course it was also tough. We were six adults and a baby living in a rather small two-bedroom apartment. Everyone is in everyone else’s business. There’s no such thing as privacy. A closed door meant nothing because if Minaya wanted to come in she would without warning, but there’s something to be said about this culture because the families are close, and friendships outside the family unit are quite rare for women. Sisters, brothers, children, grandchildren, cousins, and in-laws are welcome anytime of the day or night unannounced, and if a meal is about to be served and unexpected guests show up somehow they always find a way to stretch the meal so it feeds everyone.
Now I am in Xachaz, and have been living here for just over two weeks. My new family is great. They are a family of six: Pelver (nana), Afgan (father), Arzu (mother), Hikmat (oldest son, 18), Samira (oldest daughter, 15), and Nasiba (youngest daughter, 12). We live in a house that has 4 bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. The hamam (bath house) is outside as is the toilet, which is an outhouse with a paved hole in the ground. I have the best bedroom in the house. It is quite large, has a view of the backyard, and I can see the sun rise every morning. They also have about ten chickens in a coop in the backyard, which I suppose they use for eggs, but was told that the chickens don’t lay many eggs in the winter, so I guess they just keep them around until the spring when they will start producing more eggs, though now that I think about it they do have a hamam and you know what hamams and chickens equal?
The city of Xachmaz is much cleaner and nicer than Sumgayit. There are many parks for people to hang out in and apparently they do in droves during the summer when it is just too hot to be indoors. The main park is called the Zoo Park. A person from the US might think that the zoo park is a place where they keep caged animals, and when I heard about the zoo park I was intrigued, but also a little frightened to see the condition of the animals’ habitats. I suppose the designers of the park had the same concerns as to the safety and proper care of the animals because the residents of the zoo park are all made from stone and concrete. Not only are the animals fake, but so are half the plants. They have plastic trees with fruits, flowers, and palms that light up at night. The park’s centerpiece is a tall palm tree that shines with bright yellow light at night. It’s epitome of kitsch and it is super great!!!
I started going to UAFA, which is the organization that is hosting my service here in AZ. They work with families who have children with disabilities. The main purpose of my affiliation with this organization is to increase the economic capacity of the members of this organization. The previous volunteer working with this org started the tote bag project which employs youth with disabilities to sew and hand paint tote bags. So far the clientele has been PC volunteers, which is great, but since we are supposed to be helping to create sustainable projects for Azerbaijanis, we need to have a wider distribution base because if for some reason the PC left Azerbaijan next year, the project would likely fall apart. Part of my job will be to help the parents market and distribute these bags, and hopefully come up with another product for the kids to make and sell so they’re not putting all their eggs in one tote bag so to speak.
OK, I think I’m done playing catch up. I will try and post more regularly so I don’t have to play catch up in one post.