Sunday, March 25, 2012

More Novruz Photo's

Novruz Holiday

This past Tuesday marked my first Novruz
celebration and it was great. Hard not to love a holiday that is a celebration of Spring, involves time off from work, valued time spent with friends and family, and a ridiculous amount of homemade treats and sweets.

Each of the four Tuesdays leading up to the holiday is dedicated to one of the elements (water, fire, earth and wind) and is marked with a bonfire at night that is jumped over. Then the actual holiday is marked the same way, but with an even larger bonfire. The belief is that all bad
things that have followed you over the prior year will burn in the fire and only good things will come going forward. A great holiday.
On the actual holiday date of March 20th there was a great festival in our city to mark the day and it was a lot of fun.

Included are a few pictures to give an idea of the celebration in our city and also at my home. (The woman in the last photo was too adorable for me not to take her picture. I loved her even more 5 minutes later when the festivities ended and the sweets were being given away from each table. She used her walking cane to hook the woman in front of her to get her attention and have her pass her some treats. Awesome!)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

How is it already March??

So for anyone following this blog you will see that I am indeed perhaps the worst blogger ever. I will blame it on my internet access and the fact that all social networking is blocked in my office here, but the reality is I guess I am just not very good at keeping up with this.

It is now March and we are just starting to see the weather warm up which is a nice change. Generally speaking, I much prefer the cold weather to the hot, but there were certainly a few days this winter where I was praying for the cold to just go away. My office is heated with a main heater in our lobby and then the heat has to travel to each of our individual offices. My office is pretty drafty to begin with, so after 20 minutes or so of sitting at my desk my fingers would be numbing up so it would be time to head back to the heater for tea. I certainly drank more than my fair share of tea in an effort to keep warm.

All in, things are going very well here. This week we celebrated International Women's Day on Thursday March 8 and that was a great day. It is observed as a national holiday here so all offices were closed on Thursday, so a bonus day off is always nice. On Wednesday, the men in our office had a cake and gifts for each of us, which was so very thoughtful. Then on the actual holiday my sweet little brother brought me a rose and beautiful compact mirror. Nicest boy in all of Azerbaijan, you ask? Yes, there is a very good chance he is:)

We are also in the countdown to the Novruz Holiday here. The actual holiday will be observed on March 20, and the weeks leading up to it have been fun as the holiday is marked each Tuesday for the 4 weeks prior. Each day is dedicated to one of the elements - water, fire, earth and wind. My favorite part of each of these nights has been the fire that we set in our courtyard and then jump over. The belief is that with jumping over the fire all your bad energy and things that have followed you will burn in the fire. It is a lovely custom and we have even added our own twists to it as my brother and I will then stay outside until the fire burns down and we have been known to roast some marshmellows over the flame. Lots of fun. I am very excited for the actual holiday and to experience it here for the first time.
Here is some info for anyone who is interested in learning more.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Early December Updates and Swearing In Day

- Post written on December 14 -

Lots of changes since my last post.

As of last Thursday I am now officially a Peace Corps volunteer and have moved to my permanent site of Mingacevir! (Photo is from our swearing in ceremony and is of me, our Peace Corps Country Director Macie, and my LCF Mahira).

Our swearing in ceremony was held last Thursday afternoon in Baku (the first swearing in ceremony to be held in the city so that was pretty nice). We wrapped up our lessons earlier in the week, had our final HUB days on Wed and Thurs and then it was the big day. The ceremony was very nice with representatives from the Azerbaijani Ministries we will be working with (Education, Youth & Sport, and Economics), as well as the US Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Matthew Bryza. Following the ceremony we had a short reception where we could chat with each other, Peace Corps staff, current volunteers who made the trip, and our families who were able to attend (due to limited space at the hotel venue we were each given 2 invitations). It was a really nice ceremony and I have to admit that I did tear up at the speech of one of the other volunteers host dads. The sentiment he expressed was just so genuine and heartfelt that it really touched me.

A group of us grabbed an early dinner to celebrate and we then headed back to Ceyranbatan to make our pre-dark curfew. Once in town it was the round of goodbyes and thank you’s to a few of the families that were so hospitable to us over the weeks. I hate goodbyes so this was not the most fun for me, but we tried to keep it light. Then back to my home where Mahira came to help me with my thank you to my family. Again I hate the goodbyes, but it was certainly kept light by the kids when I gave them the gifts I had purchased (I had hit up the Ali and Nino bookstore in Baku the week prior for anything Ben 10 and Spiderman so there were stickers, coloring books, markers and puzzles flying around). Then it was time for photos with my family, some final packing and a 5am wake up call to be ready for my 6am pickup. The morning came too quickly, but I was seen off in the darkness by my host Mom and Grandma and Mahira (who again went well beyond the call of duty to arrange my ride and see me off). Two stops to pick up Rachel and Mary in neighboring towns and then on the road with the three of us and one incredibly packed car full of luggage. Car trouble hit us up in Yevlax, but after an hour or so delay we were back on the road and arrived in Mingacevir around 2pm or so.

It is kind of a funny feeling being transported in situations like this because you are pretty much flying blind into it. People are kind enough to make arrangements for us and we just go with the flow knowing that we are in good hands and all is taken care of. So once we arrived in Mingacevir we knew we were here from the welcome sign into the city, but not much else. We then pulled to the side of the road where I figured we maybe were having car trouble again. Our driver got out and was chatting with two men in cars and a minute later the car door opened and one of the men peeped his head in and said hello to Rachel. It was her host dad who she had met prior so we started unloading her stuff. Then the other man asked who I was and sure enough he was there to get me. So we said our goodbyes, I loaded my stuff in the car and we were off. Some very small chat in the car and after an intro I realized that this was my host Dad (see the part about just trusting that someone has done everything for you:). We then made the few minute drive and arrived at our house where I was welcomed by my Mom, Nana, and youngest brother, Ayxan, and shown the house. Ayxan speaks some English so it was really great to have him be able to help us communicate with each other and accelerate the getting to know you process.

It is now almost exactly four days since my arrival and it is very strange because I already have such a level of comfort with my family that I feel like I surely have known them much longer. They are just so welcoming and hospitable that I already feel like a part of the family. They watch out for me (Dad drove me to work this morning to make sure I knew the way), scold me when I do dishes (I secretly think they appreciate it though), share whatever they have with me (sunflower seeds, mandarins, pomegranates - if one person has one, it is offered to everyone), and make me smile a lot. They really are amazing.

I also started my work assignment yesterday and again I lucked out. Everyone is just so nice and they go out of their way to make me feel welcome. Yesterday at lunchtime, Ramis, who I share an office with asked me what I was doing for food since I am new to the area and he knew I didn't know anywhere. He then invited me to his house to have lunch with him, his wife and daughter. They could not have been nicer. I was also very touched when at one point his wife was chatting with him as she hurried to get everything together. He then translated for me and told me that she had asked him why he did not tell her earlier that he was bringing a guest home so she could have been more prepared. He then said, "I told her you, but you are not a guest, you will be coming over a lot now that you live here". Just lovely. Such a warm welcome to the community.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

One week until swearing in...

We are now one week away from finishing PST (pre service training), and this time next week we will all be official Peace Corps volunteers. When I think back on the time it certainly feels like much longer than ten weeks ago that we all met. You develop a certain familiarity with people as a result of spending so much time together, and I sometimes have to remind myself that we haven't known each other longer.

I have mixed emotions about the next 8 days. Part of me is so excited about moving to my permanent site and starting my work assignment, but another part of me is really bummed to be leaving. I feel like things are just starting to get to that comfort point here. The past week or two has just been really good - I am understanding more as the days pass and that is just the best feeling. One of the really nice things also is how much Azerbaijani's appreciate the attempt at learning their language. Most people seem genuinely happy to hear an American speak a few words so that is a pretty nice confidence builder.

I have also just gotten into a very comfortable routine with my family. They now know me and have become accustomed to my daily schedule and habits (even the ones that are likely very weird for them). I don't even get the lecture anymore when I leave the house with wet hair each morning (once outside though all bets are off - it is the inherent right of any older woman on the street to let me know that I will in fact probably die:)! It is also the nicest thing ever when I go to grab my perpetually muddy tall black boots from outside each morning only to see them now clean and in our hallway. So very thoughtful. After school and nighttime entertainment for my brothers has recently been provided courtesy of YouTube on my laptop and most nights find us watching at least a little Spiderman, Batman and Ben 10 in my room. It is always a fun time, until it ends in tears eventually, as all things must with four little boys in a house:)

My family and people in town even find it kind of amusing that I have bonded with the two stray dogs in our neighborhood. They are a cute male and adorable female that I give my chicken bones and any scraps I have to, and in turn I get an escort whenever I leave my house. School, a fellow volunteers house, the market, bus stop - no problem, they are up for it. We had to go to a neighboring town yesterday for a "hub day" with all PC trainees and had to leave here at 7am, which is considerably earlier than my usual day. In the still darkness of morning they were ready to go by the time I was out my gate, walked me to the highway and then waited next to us until our bus departed. They are very sweet and I will definitely miss having them around when I move.

All in, it has been a really good ten weeks and I am excited for the next two years.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A beautiful birthday in Azerbaijan

Those of you that know me well will know that I have developed a habit in the more recent years of letting my birthday fly under the radar. Amongst my fellow trainees here in Azerbaijan we had exchanged birthdays early on, but I had not planned on mentioning it to my host family. I did not want them to feel obligated to celebrate with me or do anything to mark the occasion, and in all honesty, the older I get the less significant the day has become for me.

This past Saturday I arrived home to a quieter than normal house, with my host parents and grandma at a wedding and one brother at a neighbors for the night. At one point in the evening as we were having tea, my brother Ali told me that he was now 7, but would be 8 soon. When I asked him when, I misunderstood his explanation of "soon" as tomorrow. I then got caught up in the spirit of the coincidence and told him that my birthday was the following day. (I can advise anyone that comes across this situation in the future that, as you might guess, it is the ultimate way to NOT keep your birthday under wraps:).

The next morning within a minute of opening my door after waking up, my 6 yr old brother was there to ask if it really was my birthday the next day. My grandmother then followed several minutes later with the same question. My awkward responses of yes to both was met with big smiles and "ahh's". When the subject of cake came up I did my best to explain it was not necessary. The topic then came up again several times during the day and each time I would try to explain it was not necessary, but they would just think I was not understanding correctly and just explain to me in different words that they were making a cake.

Sundays are our only day off from school here and although it is really nice to have a break, we are very limited with options of what we can do with our time. There are not any public places in our town like a coffee shop, library or cafe where we can meet and just hang out. So, Julie, Marcy and I decided to just take a walk in the afternoon for some fresh air and just to be out for a bit. We were gone for an hour or two and when I arrived home there was a beautiful homemade cake on the counter for me. My brother was super excited to show it to me and explain it was for tomorrow. I was very touched, but also a little embarrassed at the effort it must have required. I have enough trouble making a cake out of the box so can only imagine making one from scratch...

On Monday (my birthday) I did not start class until 11am so got to sleep in a bit. Once my door was open I was wished happy birthday by my host mom and grandmother and treated to a pretty awesome half English / half Azerbaijani rendition of happy birthday by one of my 4 year old brothers. I could have called it at that and had it as the perfect way to start the day. Little did I know it would get even better... Julie, who is a fellow volunteer, lives around the corner from me so she comes to my house each morning and we walk to school together. She arrived as normal and we were halfway out my courtyard when I was called back in by my host mom. She had the cake with a big candle in it for me to blow out and it was then cake and tea time. (The unofficial slogan for Azerbaijan, I believe, is that there is never a bad time for something sweet and it was definitely the case that day). The cake was delicious and such a thoughtful way to have my day start. I was in a great mood and we just chatted about how nice it was for the several minute or so walk to class. We then entered the classroom where I was met with more cake and probably the coolest birthday "candle" I have ever seen. More cake and tea and even some pictures (I promise to add soon), and a super thoughtful gift of a beautiful scarf and some cozy socks from the best language instructor ever, Mahira!

The rest of the day passed by with technical class in the afternoon and more birthday wishes. (Thanks Ceyranbatan 2 for the coke zero and Elmir and Khalid for the chocolates!). Rainy, muddy, cold walk back home from class and then in for what I thought was a quiet night. That changed around 8pm when people starting arriving at our house. Some were family members I had met before and others ones I was meeting for the first time as we exchanged hellos and I received wishes of happy birthday. Soon we all converged in our living room and I was sitting at the head of the table with a beautiful spread in front of me. I was truly so touched and moved by how much effort had gone into everything, that even if I had the ability to speak well in Azerbaijani I am not certain I would be able to.

After we finished eating, the men went to the other room to chat and the women settled in for their chat around the table. As my language skills are not great, my host mom was very aware that I could not really understand any of the conversation so told me that it was ok if I wanted to go. I took that as my opportunity to make a break for it asap in the direction of language assistance to try and compose an appropriate thank you. My luck shone on as Mahira also lives around the corner and happily agreed to help me. She put my thoughts on paper which I was then able to return back to my house and give to my host mom. She then read it aloud and I received an approving round of applause. It was really nice to be able to express some of the sentiment I felt, even if it was not necessarily spoken by me.

We wrapped up the evening around 11pm and I can honestly say it was one of the nicest birthdays I can remember. I feel very fortunate to be placed where I am and be surrounded by the people I am with. I am very lucky.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Site assignments

So yesterday was the day we found out where we would be placed for the next two years and which organization we would be working with. This, obviously, was a pretty important day for all of us and there was definitely a good mix of excitement and anxiety in the room. Looking around the room I found myself pretty subdued and not many nerves though.

My reaction, I am sure, was partly because I had a very good idea of what my assignment would be already, but I had also decided early on in the process of applying to the Peace Corps that this experience will be what I make of it. When applying, you are essentially putting control of a lot of decisions affecting you for two years in someone else's hands - what country will I be placed in?, what program within the Peace Corp will I be working in?, once in-country what family will I live with?, what other volunteers within the group will be part for my "cluster"?, who will my teacher be?, etc...

A good portion of this all comes down to chance (or fate depending on your view) and what develops from it is really up to me. To date here, I have not had much of a voice or opinion in what I have done or where I have gone and it has been all good (even the not so good). Looking back I would not change the experience or any component of it. Therefore, I continued on with that philosophy and although I did have some specific requests, I also wanted to rely on the experience and expertise of my Program Manager, Elmir. He is a really bright guy, who knows far more than I do and can see a much larger view of the picture here than I can. I completely trust his judgement and wanted to see where that would take me.

With that being said, I can now honestly say that I could not have requested or hoped for a better assignment. As most of you know, I started volunteering in Romania about 7 years ago working with orphaned and abandoned children and from the start it felt like I found the thing I was supposed to be doing with my life. It just always felt right. My biggest hope when I applied to the Peace Corps was that I would be able to, in some capacity, work in support of efforts for children and continue along the path of the work I began in Romania.

So, now with all that being said, I am incredibly happy to say that my site assignment is in a city called "Mingachevir" (which I am told is beautiful) and I will be working with "World Vision". For those of you not familiar with World Vision, they are a non-governmental international humanitarian development agency and have been working in Azerbaijan since 1994. They are dedicated to working with children, families, and communities and serve some of the most at-risk and vulnerable people in the world. I have a great level of respect for the work they do and am humbled at the prospect of assisting in any way I can here.