This is one of my very favorite photos from Azerbaijan
David, David, David. I have to admit that I didn’t much like David when I first met him. I actually remember the moment that I met him. It was in Philadelphia for Peace Corps Staging. He came up and introduced himself and I said, “I’m Carolyn.” He said, “Nice to meet you, Cərolyn.” Then I said, “No, it’s Carolyn.” He said, “Well I will call you Cərolyn.” You see, David’s from New Jersey so he said my name like Rudy’s friend Caroline on the Cosby Show. I thought he was rude.
It took me quite a while to turn my opinion around. It was the TEFL conference in Baku. I met up with him and another volunteer to take the night train to Baku. Somehow that weekend we connected and became great friends. He even came back to Ming with me on the electric train and stayed the night with Jesse and me before heading back to his site. I remember talking with him the entire 6 hour train ride. It was nice because we could speak English fast enough that no one could understand us, not even Gulnaz.
One thing I love about David is his endless romanticism and faith. He approaches everything in his life with unfaltering passion and courage. He loves everything Russian and I know that love will take him far in his life. His faith is inspirational and powerful. David is a wonderful friend and I’m so glad we had the chance to become friends.
Oh my!! David just reminded me of one of my favorite memories from Azerbaijan. We spent a night watching a season of The Amazing Race. The entire season on our laptop, all huddled together in our bed. This might sound odd to non-RPCVs, but it’s perfectly natural and normal for groups of PCVs to huddle together watching TV on DVD bought at the local Hong Kong Harry’s shop in the capital. On this particular night, we had to be somewhere in the morning so we watched it on 1.3 time so we could fit in the entire season. I remember going crazy with nervous energy when the dramatic music came on… oh man. Craziness. I think I just gave away a big secret about Peace Corps – it’s not all community development. (shhhhhhh)
Filed under Friends, People
For the first 9 or 10 weeks of Peace Corps training we lived in a little village called Sumqayıt Station. It was a 10 or 15 minute marshrutka ride from Sumqayıt. From what I could tell it was the old train station for the city and people just sort of built houses around the station. I remember very clearly being dropped off at Sumqayıt Station. We were on a bus with a few other ‘clusters’ – groups of PC Trainees who lived together in these small villages around Sumqayıt. We dropped the first group off in a little village near the Caspian, the next group in a green village full of trees with a breeze coming off the Sea, the next group had a similar sea-side hamlet. Finally it was just us, The Station Girls, and another cluster going to a town called Tuq Zavod (which translates to ‘The 30th Factory’ or something with equal squalor). We were huddled in the back of the sweltering bus watching the landscape get drearier and more dreadful. We turned onto a dirt highway and passed broken down factory after broken down factory. We went over a perilous overpass and down into Tuq Zavod. I’ll never forget the looks on the faces of the Tuq Zavod trainees. Their faces said, “Well… I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again…” Then we drove on to The Station. I can’t say it was any better than Tuq Zavod. No trees, one street, one market, lots of concrete and lots of dirt.
As it turned out, I loved my cluster of fellow PCTs. We were all girls (except Jesse, obviously, but he walked over the Tuq Zavod every morning for his Azerbaijani lessons). All my cluster-mates were perfectly positive and lots of fun. We would eat watermelon at each others’ houses while we sat in front of the fan. They all liked to keep up with the drama at our house (until we had to be swept away in the middle of the night… that story will come in a later post…) and were always excited to see what “Drunk Uncle” and “Pregnant Uncle” would be doing next. They all had wonderfully sweet host families who were generous enough to let us cook and eat in their homes. We had some lovely meals together. That’s what I remember most from The Station.
Me, Jen and Greta staying cool
It turned out that Sumqayıt was the petro-chemical capital of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russians left all their factories and plants overnight. No one was ever able (or willing, perhaps) to clean them up, so they are just sitting there oozing poison into the ground. Every now and then we would drive by a factory that had caught fire. It would eventually burn itself out, but there was a constant smell of burning tires in The Station. It’s a terrible situation that has no end in sight. People live in those conditions their entire lives.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Sumqayıt Station this past week because it’s been so hot here. The Station was impossibly hot. It was often over 100 degrees before 9am. We felt deliciously cool when the temperature would drop to 90 at night.
(300 to go!)
Nubar was our first host-something-or-other. The was the granddaughter of the matriarch of the family. In our compound we had the grandmother, her sons and their family, her daughter and family and various other family members who came and went. Nubar was her daughter who lived in another village’s daughter. It’s confusing, but even more confusing in Azerbaijani, so you’re lucky I can even try to explain it to you.
Anyhow, Nubar was a cute little thing who loved Jesse. In fact, so made me feel guilty for being married to him. She pretty much hated me out of jealousy. It was funny. She was very curious about the Americans living in her house and would often wander into our room and play with out things – clothes, head lamps, tooth brushes, anything. Her grandmother often yelled at her, but she also spoiled her to no end. She didn’t really understand why we couldn’t speak her language, but I think I learned a lot of words from her. Mostly fruits and foods.
I wonder what she’s doing now…
Filed under Family, People
We went to Istanbul after we went to London during Peace Corps. It was basically just a 36 hour layover, and it was the best layover in my life! We got to the Stone Hotel in the snow after dark. I couldn’t believe our view of endless minarets – some modern and some ancient – and the Sea of Marmara.
The Harem in Topkapi Palace
The next morning we woke up to a blanket of snow that was still falling. I have to admit that whenever I pictured Istanbul or Turkey, I always saw fruit trees and sunshine. I think we were lucky to see Istanbul in a different light.
There is so much history in Istanbul. You can really sense the transition from West to East in the city. It was neat to be in London (west) one day, Istanbul (transition) the next and back in rural Azerbaijan (east) the next.
Aya Sofya is really evidence of this bridge. It was built as the largest church in Christianity, converted to a Mosque (by covering the Biblical mosaics and adding minarets) and is now a museum. It is huge and breathtaking.
Besides the Starbucks, we also bought a hookah and some hand painted tiles. I could have spent an eternity and a fortune in the Grand Bazaar. The shop keepers were always surprised and delighted when we would speak Azeri (which is somewhat close to Turkish) and say things like InshAllah.
Istanbul was a wonderfully beautiful city. I would love to spend more time there exploring the culture, history, architecture and food.
Activities at a Sumqayıt Hub Day
The Hub Night tradition in Mingəçevir (that I think is still alive and well!) came out of the random Hub Days during Pre-Service Training. Every so often all the volunteers got together for all day training and bonding. There were 55 Trainees in our group and for the first 3 months, we lived in small communities around Sumqayıt and only got everyone together for these Hub Days.
On our way to Mike's for a Hub Night
When we got to our site, Mingəçevir, we wanted to keep up the Hub tradition. We had the most wonderful site mates in Azerbaijan, so it was a lot of fun to meet up once a week or so for dinner. It was great to have the support from other volunteers, get ideas from them and most of all, eat wonderfully (almost) American food.
Nate playing with Mike's computer at a Hub Night
For the first few months, Mike was the only volunteer in Mingəçevir with his own place, so most Hub Nights happened at his apartment. After a while, we all moved out to our own houses and apartments, so we rotated it a bit.
Another common Hub Night activity... crowding around a computer to watch a movie or YouTube
I miss getting together with Nate, Mike, Cindy, Kate, Mariko and whoever else happened to be in Ming at the time. They were great nights with great friends!
Trying to fix laptops with head lamps and vodka... always a good idea...
Tahir is a wonderful, amazing, loving, giving, caring, generous Azeri man. He was our host father in Mingechevir during Peace Corps. I suppose I should back up a little bit. Our first host family during training in Sumgayit was pretty much terrible. We lived with an old woman, her two grown sons, her daughter and various grand children. The two sons were terrible, horrible, awful men. They would drink all day (while their wives were working in a chicken factory) and come home and torment and abuse their wives (who were now doing all the cooking, cleaning and caretaking) and children. It was a horrible experience and I had come to the conclusion that all Azeri men were abusive pigs. I am so grateful that I met Tahir and that he was able to change my opinion of Azeri men.
Tahir and Bibi making pizza for us
Tahir was exactly what a host father should be. He was very patient with our Azeri and our crazy American ways. He went so far as to go through the bazaar and tell everyone, “Don’t give the Americans a hard time, treat them fairly, don’t lay a hand on them. They are my children and you will answer to me if you bother them.” He would light the fire in the hamam every morning so we were able to have a hot shower everyday (this is basically unthinkable in Peace Corps, we were spoiled). He would help his wife with the cooking and cleaning (!) and was a loving husband and father. He often called me mənim balam – my baby. He had 3 sons and always said that he was happy to finally have a daughter. I always told him I already had 3 fathers, but that I was so happy that he was the 4th (he would reply that he was, in fact, the second in importance). On Christmas he spelled out “Have a happy holiday” phonetically in Cyrillic and he called my 1st dad so he could wish him a happy holiday. That was a highlight of my Peace Corps service – I really felt the bridge between the two cultures and families grow a little shorter in that moment.
We were all very sad when we had to leave early because of this. We had a wonderful group of people seeing us off at 7am. I went around and hugged everyone and pretty much held it together. Until I got to Tahir. When I saw tears in his eyes, I totally lost it. He had done so much for me. He had protected me, supported me, taught me that Azeri men could be loving. I miss him a lot, and truly hope to visit him again someday.
Filed under Family, People
The Sumgayit Station cluster in Baku
Ayten was my Language and Cultural Facilitator (LCF) during Pre-Service Training (PST) for Peace Corps (PC). She was a lovely woman who had the difficult task of teaching me and my 4 cluster-mates about the Azerbaijani language and customs. Now, I must explain that PST is the most difficult time of PC service. We met every morning at the school and spent 4 hours learning (it was often always above 95 degrees before 9am) about the language and culture. Then we went on to a neighboring village (2 buses, 45 minutes later) to learn about our job – Teaching English as a Foreign Lanugage (TEFL) for four hours (then the buses back…). We were doing all this while dealing with the initial culture shock and apprehension of being able to actually be Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). PST was hard. Ayten handled it beautifully.
At Swearing In
She was so patient with us during all our ups and downs. I have to admit that I was probably not the easiest student. I had a difficult time during PST. Ayten was a lovely LCF who kept me motivated and focused. My whole cluster made it through PST and out to site. One of my cluster-mates even gave a speech in Azerbaijani at our swearing in ceremony. Since my time in PC, Ayten has moved up the ranks in PC and still works for them during PST. I am so happy that new Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) get the benefit of her outstanding teaching.
Ayten and other LCFs at our Swearing In party
Mallory, Grandma, Michael, Me
I love my cousin Michael. He is one of the best people in the world. He is about 6 years older than I and I always looked up to him. My earliest memories of him are from visits to him and his family in Huntington Beach, California. He was a great tour guide at Disneyland. I proposed marriage to him on the Queen Mary. Who could have blamed me? He’s such an awesome guy!
On Saturday Michael got married to a lovely woman named Michelle. I really couldn’t be happier for them. They are such a wonderful match and I’m sure they will have so much joy and happiness in their life together! They are both hysterical and crazy. If you need evidence of this, watch the following video I took at their wedding reception.
One of the ways that Michael has most inspired me is with Peace Corps. I had talked about joining Peace Corps for years… ever since high school. I would send away for the application packet and start filling it out about once a year, but never sent it in. Michael beat me to it. He left for Chad not too long after I graduated from OSU. He ended up being assigned a site that was really close to Darfur. I was so in awe and amazed to hear about what he was doing. I was so proud of my cousin. Unfortunately due to protests and the generally unsafe environment of Chad, Michael and his fellow PCVs had to be evacuated to Cameroon and had their service interrupted.
The evacuation boat from Chad to Cameroon
I found the above photo on the internet (on one of the returned Chad PCV’s blog.. it’s amazing what you can find if you look hard enough!).
When Michael came to visit after he returned State-side, Jesse and I were enthralled by his stories and photos. That night we had the either-we-buy-a-house-and-have-babies-or-we-finally-apply-for-the-Peace-Corps discussion that every married couple has (right?!?). The next day we applied and a year later (to the day) we were on a plane to Azerbaijan.
Michael was a constant inspiration to me during my time in the Peace Corps. I knew that I had things a lot better in Azerbaijan than he had in Chad, and I constantly reminded myself that if he could survive that, I could survive this.
I love my cousin and I hope he’s having a wonderful time on his honeymoon!
Donny was one of the first AZ5s (5th group of volunteers in Peace Corps Azerbaijan) we met. He was one of the 11 volunteers from Oregon. We met up with Donny, Jeff and Vy a few weeks before we embarked. It was really great to meet some of the other future AZ5s and get to talk about our expectations and trepidations.
I don't really know what's happening here...
Donny is one of my favorite people from Peace Corps. He was always so positive and motivating. I honestly can’t remember seeing Donny without a smile on his face. He was so amped to be in Azerbaijan and working with youth. He was really inspiring. I don’t think I could have made it through training without him.
Donny (aka the Golden Ticket) and his lovely girlfriend Sarah at the Rose Bowl
We have been able to see Donny a few times since he got back to Oregon last year. I am so happy with the little enclave of AZRPCVs in Portland. It is great to see them again! This weekend we’re going to Portland to pick up Kelsey and Sally (other AZ5s!) and I couldn’t be more excited! I am trying to get them to join the PDXAZRPCV group! I’m sure Donny will help show them an amazing time and inspire them to move our here!
Filed under Friends, People
Gulnaz is one of my Azeri friends. She was one of my Azeri counterpart teacher – we co-taught English to students at School 13. Gulnaz was so motivated to speak English and learn new teaching strategies that it was often overwhelming for me. She was very involved with her students and worked very hard to give them opportunities to work with Americans. It was because of Gulnaz that School 13 gets Peace Corps volunteers; she is unyielding in the application process for volunteer placements. She was also really involved in the local branch of the Azerbaijani English Teachers Association.
It was really nice to have Gulnaz when I first got to Mingechevir. She showed me around town and introduced me to people in markets and internet clubs. She helped me navigate my way through registering with the KGB (or the new Azeri version of the KGB anyway) and getting permission from the school direktor to use rooms for my clubs.
Gulnaz (in orange) and some of our students