The Sound of Silence
It’s difficult to capture a few moments in time on a piece of paper, but I will try. Quiet or solitude is not something that comes easily here in AZ, and the better I get to know myself, the more I’m realizing how much I really do enjoy quiet and a certain amount of solitude. It’s not even about enjoyment per se as much as it seems to be a necessity for me to keep my sanity. So many of us go around filling our lives with so much noise that we don’t even realize it. Many of us wake up in the morning to the sounds of an alarm, after stumbling out of bed we might turn on the morning news to find out what we missed in the night, and then we get into our cars and turn on the radio or talk on our phones. At our jobs we interact with co-workers, patients, clients, and customers, and after a long day we might go to the local bar to unwind by having a drink with friends, or to the gym where we put earphones on and listen to loud music. TV, gossip, news, radio…our days are filled with noise. Many of us have become so unaccustomed to the sounds of silence that when we step away from the noise for just a little while and listen to the natural sounds we realize that there really is no such thing as silence. In fact, what we call silence can be very loud.
Today is New Year’s Day, and after spending a very mellow, but loud NYE at home I needed a break. Azerbaijani families gather socially around the TV. They drink tea around the TV, they eat dinner in front of the TV, no matter what time of day it is, if people are awake it seems that the TV is on, and that they are often watching some variety show with singers who lip sync (out of sync) and dance to Azeri music, or they watch Turkish music videos both of which are loud, repetitive, and each genre’s music sounds the same to me. I’m not picking on the music of Azerbaijan, I think the same argument can be made about much of the world’s music, but I don’t particularly care for the traditional music of AZ so hearing it all day long grates on my nerves.
Anyhow, I decided to catch a break from family time and go for a walk in the drizzling rain. I had no particular destination in mind and just started walking. I passed the railroad tracks, turned off the main road onto a side street, walked up a hill that lead to a dirt road, which turned into some peace and quiet. As I was walking out of the city and into a village area, I began to notice that the land people live on is bigger. There are marshy wetlands, small natural ponds and streams that run through peoples’ property. Livestock roam freely on the streets grazing as they meander, and geese waddle down grassy hillsides. The loud city streets I’d been walking on the last three weeks became country roads. It was so refreshing to be on them, alone, in the relative quiet. Once again I began to hear the silence, the thoughts from my mind began to clear, and that grating feeling began to dissipate. Unfortunately, this lasted only moments because I began to notice all the piles of trash everywhere! The auditory noise turned into visual noise. The noise that was offensive to my ears was replaces by a new noise, which was equally offensive to my eyes.
There is so much trash everywhere, and these people have no place to put it except near the babbling creeks, the marshy wetlands, and the gullies at the bottom of the green hillsides. It would be easy to call these people pigs or slobs, but where else should they dump their trash? In the city center, which is where I have been spending most of my time, you don’t see it as much. The municipality has put a ton of money into giving Xachmaz a cosmetic facelift. The main roads are repaved, there are new parks, beautiful Moorish mausoleum like structures on the street corners, but there is no money, infrastructure, care for where these people deposit their trash and it’s really a pity because the places outside the city could be so beautiful. It seems that the municipality finds it far more important to spend its money on the cosmetic features of the city than it does the practical issues of what to do with its trash, or closing the open sewers that line the streets we all walk down (the open sewers do not carry human waste. The reason everyone who lives in a house has an outhouse is because there is no system that carries human waste away. All human deposits of waste stay in one place. The hole in the ground.).
As a foreigner who comes from a country that has many of these municipal services under control it would be easy to point the finger and judge. One thing I’m trying not to do is compare how Azerbaijan does things to how we do them in the States. First of all, the U.S. has been a developed country for some time and though we have figured some things out our systems are not perfect and they certainly did not start out perfectly. For instance, it’s great that we have landfills to deposit the gross amounts of trash we create, but often times those landfills are placed in areas where there may be future plans for the development of housing communities, parks, and recreation areas and when the giant hole in the earth is filled we build these lovely communities on top of them only to find out later that the groundwater has been contaminated, that other toxins have leached into the soil or that noxious gases fill the air we breathe.
I always thought that if Americans didn’t have landfills, and we had to see the amount of garbage we produced strewn about or piled up mountain high in the communities we live in that we would reconsider how much trash we produce, but after living here for the short time I have, and seeing what people do with the trash they produce, I’m not so sure that’s the case. I won’t say that it does not bother the people who live in these communities to see heaps of trash in plain site, but it does not bother them enough to stop making the trash or figuring out a different way to deal with the trash, and the conversations I’ve had with people about it are somewhat apathetic. There is an attitude here that the government should be responsible for everything. I believe this attitude is left over from Soviet rule because during Soviet times, everything was managed by the government, but I also think it is an effect of corruption. Nothing gets done in this country without someone’s pockets being lined. Privatizing the municipal system would be a great solution. It would certainly help boost a severely depressed economy, but the cost of doing business in Azerbaijan is simply too high. Almost every project, advancement, move towards progress is done because someone has profited from it through bribery, and getting the people to organize and start a grassroots movement around changing the way things are done is a long way off into the future. It makes my work as a volunteer here quite difficult. It would be so easy to say, “OK, you over there, put down that cup of tea, get off your butt, and let’s start organizing.” There are millions of NGOs the world over who have taken this approach and had great success in creating change. However, what many of these NGOs have failed to do is empower the people of the country that they are serving in to act on their own behalf.
I think the Peace Corps makes it very clear that we are not here to change anything. We are simply here to lend a hand in creating the change that the people in our communities want to make, and once we build trust with these people perhaps then we can make suggestions about how to make some changes, and help them to facilitate that change, but this approach is slow and really hard. In my practice of yoga and meditation I am often reminded to breathe through the distractions on and off the mat or cushion. It is no coincidence that on my afternoon quest to obtain a few moments of solitude and silence I was confronted by this loud aberration just as I’m am often confronted with various challenges on my mat and cushion. It is also no coincidence that I ended up in country that is very loud in many different ways. Everyday I am here, I am being asked to take a deep breath despite the noise that can resemble nails on a chalkboard because behind that noise resides the sound of silence.