Well, it is the beginning of what we will come to call our “Great Adventure”!! I can’t even imagine how Aaron must have felt when he left Moline on June 24th 2006 to start his “adventure”! At least I had Bob with me as we were traveling and once we got to AZ, we had Aaron who had been there for a year, and knew some of the language and customs! For Aaron to take off on this venture by himself was really quite an undertaking. Bob and I are both so proud of him and after spending the time that we did with him, we are even prouder. It was so much fun to hear him deal with cab drivers, etc in their native language, and just to watch how he handled himself!
Even though I was anxious to see Aaron, I was very nervous and apprehensive about this trip. I guess that it was because of the unknown. I wonder if it will be everything that I imagined?
Our flight was not scheduled to leave Moline until 2:30, but we were told to allow more than 2 hours, so we were there by 12:00 Noon. We were checked in, etc by 12:15 even though the guy at the ticket desk said “This is going to take forever!”. Our luggage was exactly 50 lbs each. WHEW!! We had lots of gifts and computer software that weighed quite a bit.
When we arrived at O’Hare and got to the International terminal—we thought that to quote Bob “I feel like I should Moo!” Extremely long lines and before we got there we were feeling pretty smug about the flight from Moline being on time and us having plenty of time before our next flight (2 hours). The lady standing in line in front of us was headed back to London and she said New York, Heathrow, no other place was as bad as O’Hare. However, we did get through security in time to get to our Turkish Airlines flight that was to leave at 5:00. It finally left about 5:30—but we had been told that it was not unusual for International flights to leave a bit late. It takes a long time to get that big Airbus filled up!
The moment that we stepped on the plane, we felt that we were in another country! There was Turkish musak playing on the intercom and most of the people around us were speaking Turkish! As we took off over Lake Michigan—I commented to Bob that the sailboats on the water looked like dead fish floating! Nice image—huh? Our flight was relatively uneventful. We thought that it was supposed to be 11 hours, but it turned out to be 10 hours, 10 minutes. The flight really did not seem that long. They were always coming around with food (which was pretty good for airplane food), there were several movies (Fantastic Four and Mr. Brooks). Bob watched the movies and I chose to read. Come 10:00 our time, I felt that I was ready to sleep—once we got on the flight to Istanbul and knew that it was on time, I think that I relaxed a little bit. I went to the bathroom, took out my contacs, brushed my teeth, went back to my seat and curled up with the airline provided pillow and blankey. Guess What? I could NOT fall asleep, neither could Bob (which is very unusual for him). So we read, etc. while many around us did sleep. How do they do that?
We arrived in Istanbul on time and had an hour to find our gate and get to the plane for Baku—piece of cake—WRONG!! First of all this big air bus unloaded on the tarmac and they bussed us to our destination which was really only a few feet away, but they took us all around the airport to do it. Mostly the announcements, etc were in Turkish which was our first cause for a little bit of panic, especially since we were tired from not sleeping at all. Then when we got to where we thought that we were supposed to be—they said it was the wrong gate—but ten minutes later it was the right gate!!
Surprisingly enough, this flight took off on time also and much to my relief there were no chickens in the aisles (family joke)! Although, the flight was hot and noisy and more informal than the flight from Chicago to Istanbul was. Who cares—in a little less than three hours—we will be seeing Aaron!! Hope that our luggage is there also and that we don’t have any trouble getting our Visas!!
We arrived in Baku on time. Our first glimpse of the country as we were coming in for a landing was not a pretty one. It was just lots of desert like terrain with no trees, no green, no nothing!! An interesting thing when we landed both in Istanbul and Baku, everyone on the plane applauded!! Before we could even get to where Aaron was waiting for us, we had to get our Visas and luggage. Of course, he had no way of knowing whether we were on the plane or not, because we had no usable cell phones with us. There was a bit of standing in line and as we have already discovered to quote Aaron: “There is real time and then there is Azerbaijan time”. We did get our Visas with no problem and joy of joys our luggage was all there!! Then we got to see our son!! Bob spotted him first and boy does he look terrific!! The same Aaron except 30 lbs lighter!! I had a hard time finding him at first—then I couldn’t wait to hug him! Yes—I cried—I am his mother and I hadn’t seen him in 14 months for goodness sakes!!
Aaron had found a driver to take us to the hotel and then the adventure really began! Aaron had told us to pack light, but guess what—we didn’t!! A fact that we would regret many times during our stay in AZ. Anyway, the car that Aaron had hired was a Lada—a Russian made sub compact. (Or to quote Aaron: “a Russian washing machine on wheels!”). Many of the cabs (I believe that Aaron said it was the ones with the Turkish drivers) had “evil eye” medallions hanging from their rearview mirrors. This was to ward off evil spirits. It was a dark blue circle with a white circle inside of that with a lighter blue circle inside of that with a black circle in the middle! In a couple of cases we also saw either on the dash or in the back window what looked to me like some kind of dried weed that was prickly and this was also supposed to serve the same purpose. They made “evil eyes” into all sorts of things: jewelry, key chains, etc. We even saw one of the weed type things in the house that we stayed in when we were in Xinaliq.
It was a real trick fitting four people, four large suitcases, plus 2 back packs and an overnight bag in this little car—but we made it by holding some of the stuff on our lap, etc.
Aaron says that he avoids going in to Baku very often and I can understand why. It was 100 degrees when we landed and very few places use air conditioning. So we take off for the city with the windows of the car wide open and packed in there like sardines!! Bob made the observation that he believed if a car’s horn did not work, it was not suitable to be driven anymore!! There were very few streetlights or stop signs, (what stop signs they had were in English—but no one seemed to pay much attention to them!) just lots of honking and fist shaking, etc. and where the road should be two lanes, it would usually be about 3 -4 and there were these round-abouts that were a nightmare! Surprisingly enough there were not very many accidents in evidence. As we were going into the city, Aaron pointed out that all the trees were painted white around the bottom, something about some kind of insect or something that liked to bore into the trees. Aaron also made the observation that even though all the trees were painted, you never saw anyone doing it!!
We did eventually get to our hotel—the driver said he knew where it was, but he didn’t!! However, the driver had been very nice and Aaron felt very glad to find him. I think he charged like 15 manat (1 manat is about .85 US) for the trip one way and he waited with Aaron until we got there and dealt with all of our luggage. We were not to be quite so fortunate in some of our dealings with other taxi drivers, but that story is for later on in this journal!! It was not the normal hotel that the Peace Corps uses because that one had no reservations—something about a wrestling tournament. We stayed at the Hotel Consul and it was a pretty nice place. We had two rooms and a bathroom. Aaron slept on a hide a bed in the living room area and we had a very large bedroom. The air conditioning and nice shower were a welcome sight!! The cost was about 90 manat a night. Aaron was hungry for pizza so after we got settled a bit, he ordered pizza from a place that he knew would deliver and then went next door to a little market to buy some pop. Our first experience with no ice. No ice machines in the hotel!! But the pizza tasted good and we were happy to be there and be able to relax. We went to sleep ok, but both Bob and I woke up a few hours later and could not go back to sleep for what seemed like several hours.
For me, this was the DAY FROM HELL!!
I started off my morning by frying my curling brush!! Aaron had brought along an adapter for me to use and I said to Bob and Aaron, “OK, so all I do is plug my curling brush into this adapter and plug the adapter in to the outlet?” and they said “Yes”. WELL, I plugged it in and POP. “Oh, was that a 220?” Bob said. How in the heck did I know?!? Guess we needed a voltage regulator also, which Aaron had back at his house. Everything there is 220 and my curling brush was 110. Oh well, after the first day, I gave up on make-up and blow dryer, because it was so hot, that in 5 minutes of being out—the make-up and hair were gone anyway!!
Breakfast was provided with our hotel stay. The breakfast consisted of bread (always bread), cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, hard boiled eggs, juice, tea, and instant coffee (Bob was going to end up being willing to give up his first-born for a cup of real coffee before the trip was over.)
After breakfast was over, we took a taxi to Freedom Square and the train station to purchase tickets for our trip out to Agstafa on Friday. As we were walking across the square, a policeman approached us and I thought UH, OH!! But, he just wanted to practice his English as he could tell we were American. He was a nice man, just wanted to know what we thought about his country, etc. We saw evidence of many statues of all sorts of various dignitaries, poets, etc everywhere that we went. They really liked to honor their people, I guess. We saw a building that had May 28th printed on the outside of it. I think that Aaron said it was the old train station. Anyway, May 28th was the original Independence Day for Azerbaijan. That freedom only lasted two years the first time.
The train system was something left over from the former Soviet Union and a pretty good one, according to Aaron. However, when we walked in to the train station, I began to wonder. It was a very dismal, hot place. Aaron told us that they do not stand in line in Azerbaijan, they kind of just get in a big cluster and you have to be aggressive to ever get your turn. Fortunately, Aaron knew how to do this. Bob and I just stood back and let him. Aaron had already told us that you were not allowed to take any pictures of government buildings, but we found out that the no picture taking rule applied to transportation buildings also. While we were standing in the terminal waiting for Aaron, I asked Bob to take a picture. He did—and a policeman/security guard—some one in uniform came over and told us “No, No, No!” We said ok and put our camera away and that was that. Aaron finally got our tickets—it was about 18 manat for three tickets for a 10 hour train ride. Then we decided that while we were in the train station, we should probably exchange some money. Very few places take credit cards, especially once you got out to the villages. I think that maybe our hotel and a few other places would have taken a credit card, but we didn’t try. We then set out to explore the city on foot!! We walked along the Caspian Sea, there were flowers, gardens, etc. but nothing was very well tended. I paid 20 cents to use a bathroom there that was not very clean. Aaron said that they are not very big on public facilities. Aaron made the comment that it was weird to see couples acting like couples in Baku. That is holding hands, etc. as out in the village you don’t see that kind of thing. You hardly even know that someone is a couple until they get married!! I imagine Bob and I walking around the village holding hands a few times gave people something to talk about. Although, Aaron said:”Mom, don’t worry about it—they think I am weird all the time!”
We toured Maiden Tower. Supposedly, the 14th Century king Shirvanshah had a daughter who was in love with a commoner and to keep her from him, the king built this tower and kept his daughter there. She was so distraught that she threw herself out of the window of the tower into the sea!! That is one story—Aaron said that there were probably some variations on that theme, but basically the same. I had already walked out of there when a woman approached Bob with her daughter and instructed her daughter to speak English to Bob. The little girl was very shy, but eventually she told Bob her name and Bob told her his and that was it. I found myself feeling very self-conscious at first because I knew everyone was looking at me and I felt like such a mess!! We also toured the Palace of Shirvanshah. That was interesting. There were no furnishings, just the palace, that was very well preserved for being 14th Century!! When we left there, a man called to us from a place called “The Flying Carpet” to come see his carpets. As it turned out, this happened to be the place that Aaron was looking for where most of the Peace Corps volunteers went to buy carpets, because he was reasonable, spoke good English, and was willing to ship things for them, etc. We got a bit of history, etc about the various carpets and promised that we would be back when we came back to Baku before we left to go back to the States.
About the only American restaurant that we saw in Baku was a McDonald’s and Aaron decided that he wanted a milkshake, so we all went for milkshakes. Again, no lines, just crowds around the counter. After we finished our milkshakes, I decided to use the restroom. WELL—I locked myself in the stall and thought I was not going to get out again!! In the States, I would have had my cell phone and I would have called Bob on his and that would have been that! I had to make myself calm down as I was about hysterical by this time and eventually I was able to get the door open! We walked around a little bit more after that and went to a place called Artists’ Alley that had souvenirs, etc. and bought a few little things. They did have stores like Gap, Guess, Versace and a few other things, but we really didn’t do any of that kind of shopping. Aaron kept saying that Baku was NOT Azerbaijan.
Aaron had discovered an Ex-Pat (Ex-Patriot) bar that he liked and so we went there for dinner. Ex-Patriots are any foreigners who live and work in the country and they tend to find places that the wait-staff speaks English and the menus are in English and have relatively “normal” American and also in this case Mexican food. Bob and Aaron were very happy to be able to get a cold beer. Some of the different kinds of beer that Bob and Aaron sampled while were in AZ were: Export 33, Xirdalan (which was brewed outside of Baku) and something called Baltika that was numbered from 1 – 9 with 9 being the highest alcohol content. Bob and Aaron liked the Baltika 3. While we were eating, I said “Oh, my gosh, you guys, I just broke off part of my tooth!” The first full day of vacation in a foreign country and I need a dentist!! Actually, the tooth never did really bother me and I was lucky enough to not need dental care while I was there!!
We then headed back to our hotel, as we were all hot and tired by this time and wanted to get up at a fairly decent time in the morning as we needed to get to Guba by 11:00 am to meet our driver for the trip to Xinaliq. The Caucasus mountains and cooler weather—YEAH!! We repacked our suitcases for the three day trip to the mountains, so that we would not have to take all of our luggage with us. Since we had to check out of the hotel the next morning, Bob and Aaron took a cab to the Peace Corps office and left our extra luggage there for a few days. With the day that I had so far, I decided I just needed to take a shower and stay put!!
When Bob and Aaron got back and we were preparing to go to bed, Bob discovered that his CPAP wasn’t working and after a little bit more investigating, we found that there were other things that didn’t work like the TV. Anyway, remember back to this morning when I fried my curling brush? Well, after having someone from the front desk come up and take a look around and then think about it for awhile, he discovered that a circuit breaker had been tripped!! We didn’t tell him what had happened with my curling brush that morning, but we figured out right away that frying my curling brush was what tripped the circuit breaker!!
Aaron had also called his first host family this evening to see if we could visit them on our way back from Xinaliq. It was fun to hear him carrying on a conversation with his host father in his native language. Aaron kept making a sound that to me sounded like: heh, heh, heh—almost like he was laughing and I thought that his host father must be a REALLY funny guy—I later discovered that it was just more a form of acknowledgement and we heard it a lot after that.
We caught a cab to Guba for about 40 manat. That was quite a ride and again—the two lane highways became three or four lanes. Many times the driver would pull out to pass about the time I would be considering pulling back in if I were driving. At one point, I just grabbed Bob’s hand and prayed for the best. But, as Bob stated more than once, after a while, you even got used to that! Our driver seemed to have a sixth sense as to when we would be coming up on a policeman, because he would reach over and put on his seat belt and slow down. I guess there is a seat belt law, but people don’t seem real concerned about it. Then he would check his rearview mirror and take off his seat belt and speed up. At one point, Bob and Aaron thought that he was going about 160 km/hour. That’s fast!! With the windows open and no air conditioning on—boy was my hair pretty!! At one point, we were going by one of the policeman checkpoints and the policeman was flagging us down, I am not sure why, but our driver just kept on going and looked in his rearview mirror every now and then to make sure that he wasn’t coming after us and he wasn’t!! The initials on the police vehicles, etc. was DYP and the joke is that it stands for “Did You Pay?”. Gas was about .55/liter. There were some full service gas stations, but you would also see just little stands along the road with liter bottles of gas and a funnel!
Aaron had another Peace Corps volunteer who was finishing up his service, tell him about a gentleman who was originally from Xinaliq and would set up the trip to Xinaliq for us. His name was Herradean and he worked in Guba. While I was waiting for Bob and Aaron to come back from the bathroom (which they never found), I was talking to the man who had set up our trip and he asked me a very interesting question. He asked me what had made Bob and I decide to send Aaron to the Peace Corps!! When I explained that it was Aaron’s decision—he was kind of surprised. Aaron says that the people in AZ have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to leave home for any length of time. This man had spent some time in the States and knew Davenport and Des Moines, so I was sort of surprised at his question, since he had experienced some of the American life.
Our driver came and we started out on a very harrowing ride to Xinaliq, although not as much as some of our rides had been because the road wouldn’t allow it. There was construction going on, but most of the time, when we approached, the construction workers would get out of the way for us!! There weren’t many cars on the road, especially the closer we got to Xinaliq. We were looking forward to being in the mountains for a few days though, because it would be cooler, until Aaron told us that there were no showers where we would be staying!! Boy, was I learning how to really rough it in a hurry! The village of Xinaliq is so remote that they speak their own language, although Aaron was able to converse with them somewhat. I think it was kind of a combination of Azeri, Turkish, Russian and I don’t know what else!! When we reached the village, it was just like we had stepped back in time! There were sheep and cows on the hillside, shepherds herding their flocks on horseback or on foot. The houses had grass roofs and were built in the side of the hill in many cases so that the roof of one house was the front yard of another. The old men wore dark suits and some wore a hat that looked Russian to me and was made out of lamb’s wool. I have a picture (if we find our camera) of the father at the guest house where we stayed, standing up on the roof of the house with his hands behind his back, just staring off at the mountains wearing one of these hats. Aaron said that there is also another kind of hat that they wear, that almost looks like a very large beret. There are not a lot of things to do in the village and so you see a lot of this type of thing. You will also see the older men sitting around and they will pull their prayer/worry beads out of their pocket and start running them through their fingers. When we arrived and took our luggage to our room (which served as our dining room during the day), we were served Cay (pronounced Cheye) which means either tea or river. It was not Iced Tea—oh no, it was VERY HOT tea served in small juice size cut glass glasses. We saw a lot of very pretty crystal and dishes in many of the homes. The custom is to either add granulated sugar (which seems a bit coarser than what we have) to your tea or to take a sugar cube and put it in your cheek and then drinking the tea. There was also a bowl of wrapped candy on the table which could be used to give your tea a sweeter taste. No matter how poor the household might look, there was always sugar and candy on the table for your tea. I do not like tea (hot or cold), but I figured out in a hurry that if I wanted anything safe to drink this was probably the best way to go. So, with the addition of a lot of sugar—I learned to drink tea. The moment your glass was even remotely getting empty—they were offering you more, so you learned to leave about 1/3 of your glass full, so that they would not offer anymore. The tea was brewed in something called a Samlovar and reminded me of something that we would see as part of a silver tea service only bigger. You would see Samlovars along the roadside where people were brewing their tea or in the mountains at the sites where the shepherds had set up their camp. We were then served lunch. The midday meal was generally served between 2:00 and 3:00 and then the evening meal about 8:00. Our meals always consisted of some kind of bread/cheese, fruit (apples, pears, peaches, grapes, plums) tomatoes and cucumbers and many times fried potatoes. Watermelon was very plentiful and we ate a lot of that also which was very refreshing. Both going to Guba and Xinaliq and many other times as we were traveling the countryside we would see MANY road side fruit stands—I don’t know how any of them made a living as they were so close together and most all had the same thing!! We saw many little cars along the way that were LOADED as if they were trucks with whatever produce they might be hauling. Also, almost every vehicle that you saw had a cracked windshield—I assume from the rock, etc that was so often seen on the roads. After lunch, our driver took us up to King Mountain--the highest peak in the Caucasus Mountains. We did not go up to the top, but were able to see it and it was beautiful. I found it interesting that we would be driving along and the driver would stop at a stream, lift the hood of his vehicle, pull out an old anti-freeze jug and fill it from water at the stream to cool down the engine. Those little vehicles just kept on going. In the mountains we had something slightly bigger that had four wheel drive. When we got back to the house, we probably had more tea, I am not quite sure and then I think that we just sat around for awhile and watched Turkish TV. Every home had a satellite dish and a nice TV!! For dinner that night, it was more of the same as lunch except that there was some sort of meat added—I couldn’t quite bring myself to eat it—I think that it was lamb, but it didn’t look very appetizing to me and I think that the altitude was starting to bother me just a little. This was also my introduction to the Turkish squat toilet—I can only say that you have never lived or never appreciated a Western toilet until you have used a Turkish squat toilet for a few days!
After dinner, it wasn’t very long until the table was pushed aside and mattresses, pillows and blankets were brought in to make beds on the floor for us. We had a moderately good night’s sleep except when the power went off for a few hours and then Bob’s CPAP would quit working and he would start snoring!! I had to get up once in the night to use the bathroom and Bob was already awake because his CPAP wasn’t working, so I asked him to walk out with me. As we were coming back, we took a moment to look up at the sky and the stars were incredible and the mountain air was so fresh and clean—it was quite a change from the air in Baku!! We were even able to very clearly see the Milky Way. We didn’t stay out for very long though, because it was rather chilly!!
In the morning, breakfast consisted of Cay, hot milk that our host suggested we add sugar to, bread, butter and cheese. After breakfast, I was so tired, that I laid back down and took a nap and Bob and Aaron went exploring the village. They went to a little museum in the village and to the source of water for the village (they said that it tasted very good and cold). They also went in to a couple of caves, I think. Right next to our house where we stayed, was a medical clinic of sorts, and Bob and Aaron talked to some people there a little bit. Bob had a real difficult time trying to explain Respiratory Therapist to them, so sometimes they just said he was a lung doctor—sometimes you had to improvise a little bit with the language!! That afternoon, our host arranged a driver to take us up to the Eternal Flame (supposedly, the only natural eternal flame left in Azerbaijan). That was the most expensive transportation of our whole trip, but well worth it. We paid 50 manat, which in comparison to what we paid for other transportation was really high. It was interesting, but I commented that it looked like an unattended campfire. You could feel the heat from the flame for quite a ways back from it. Originally, our host told us that it wasn’t real far, and we could probably hike it, but when we saw the terrain and how far we would have had to go, we were glad we had a driver for the majority of the trip. It just blew my mind that our host/guide was wearing shoes that would look like a man’s dress shoes with VERY pointed toes and was climbing around like one of the sheep we saw. While I on the other hand, had brand new Nikes and I was the one that was slipping and sliding!! When we were coming back from the Eternal Flame, our driver stopped many times to visit with shepherds along the way. At one point, two cowboys rode up on their horses and wanted Bob to take their picture, which he did. They even tried to pay him about 10 manat, which was very generous. Bob refused the money, so then one of them wanted him to get on his horse with him. Bob declined by making a sound like a chicken and they understood exactly what he was trying to say. Then the one cowboy leaned in to the vehicle and kissed Bob on the cheek! So Bob has been telling people that he got kissed by a cowboy!!
To kill a little bit of time before dinner, we played dominos with our host—but not the kind of dominoes we play around here—the very old fashioned kind that we used to play when we were kids!!
After we had tired of playing dominos, Bob started a series of questions about “what is the word for?”. There was a vinyl tablecloth on the dining room table and the pattern in it was various fruits, so Bob started asking the word for the fruits. Anyway, here is everything that you ever wanted to know about the words for fruits!!
That night after dinner, there was a wedding (toy) in the village. Since the bride’s family lived just down the hill from where we were staying, we saw the activity going on all day. Even with all the activity going on, though, when the family left for the wedding ceremony, they left with laundry hanging on the line, even though they were coming back to the house after for the reception. I could tell that the family where we stayed was anxious to get through dinner and clean-up so that they could go to the reception. Pretty soon, other relatives were arriving and for awhile you could hear the laughter and chatter of some of the female members as they were getting ready to leave. I thought that they were probably changing clothes and “primping” for the occasion. However, when they left our host/hostess had on the same clothes that I had seen them wearing for the last two days!! We were invited to come along, but were all pretty tired and decided to go to bed. Aaron said that the wedding receptions can get pretty boisterous with drinking, dancing, and lots of food that lasts until morning!! It was interesting to me that the weddings seemed to take place any day of the week that people felt like having them. They may not have many fancy things, but the bridal car was always decorated with ribbons, organza and some very pretty decorations!
I can’t remember in what order, we had some of the following foods while we were there, but they had asked Aaron and these had been some of his choices along with the items that I mentioned earlier when I first started talking about the mountains. We had: Hengel—a sort of ravioli type dish in broth, Dolma—which could mean many different types of vegetables stuffed with a meat and rice mixture ( we had a tomato stuffed), and cutlet—which reminded me in some ways of a miniature meat loaf that was fried and VERY tasty.
On more than one occasion while we were in Xinaliq, we would find ourselves sitting around outside on some very hard and uncomfortable wooden chairs, just looking at the mountains, enjoying the little bit cooler weather and talking with the many neighbors that found an excuse to stop by so that they could talk to the Americans. One neighbor asked Aaron how much a beer cost in the United States and then I could tell that he was asking about his mother and father because I understood annah (mother) and antah (father). I said to Aaron, “I know that he was talking about your Dad and I, do I want to know what he said?” and Aaron told me that he wanted to know who he (Aaron) loved better—his mother or his father? Well, I immediately looked at the neighbor and pointed to myself, about the same time that Bob was pointing to me also!! Interesting questions—I am sure he was just trying to think of something to make conversation and hear how funny we talked!!
That evening, before it got too dark, Aaron and I walked down to a stream in the village and were watching the sheep and cows on the hillside, I didn’t know that cows were that adaptable to hillsides, but I guess they are. We found ourselves getting kind of chilly, so we walked back to the house.
The next morning the driver was there to pick us up and we were on our way back to Sumgayit ( the actual name of the town where his family the Abdulov’s lived was called Tagiev, but Sumgayit was where Aaron took his training and the closest larger town) to visit with Aaron’s host family that he lived with during training. Aaron had called them earlier in the week to see if we could stop on Friday afternoon and they said yes.
The father was a military commander, but he came home for the midday meal, so we did get to see him and we had lunch and gave them (host mother and host father) gifts and took pictures together. We were not able to see any of their four sons, as they were all busy with other things. We gave Dad a Leatherman tool, Mom a wind chime, candle and some Victoria’s Secret shower gel and lotion. We had baseball caps for each of the boys.
My first impression of the apartment where Aaron stayed with his first host family was that it was a throwback from the Soviet Union, which Azerbaijan at once had been a part of. The apartment was very dark and dreary and there was junk in the hallways and the yard outside was very dusty and the trees, etc that were there were very scrawny and untended. Aaron admitted that the first three months were very difficult. Bob said that if he had seen the place where Aaron lived for the first three months, he probably would have told him to come home! This is not to say that the apartment itself was dirty or the people were unkempt, just very dreary!! The mother and father, however, were very nice people, and I could tell they really cared about Aaron. At one point, the father said that “he used to have four sons, and now he has five!” He asked Aaron to assure both Bob and I that we had done a very fine job of raising Aaron and that he had given them no trouble when he stayed with them! We asked Aaron to thank them for being so kind and caring. Aaron said that there was a phrase that the Dad used when one of his sons would do something stupid or when he came home and he was tired and that was: “oy-dah”. He would shake his head and say this a few times and then be done with it.
I was very self conscious about meeting his host family after not bathing in three days, but if they noticed, they were gracious enough not to comment! When we left, Bob even got a kiss on the cheek from Dad. Aaron had told us that this was a custom and we were very touched because we knew it was very sincere on the part of Aaron’s host Dad.
After we had tea, lunch and sweated with them for a couple of hours, Dad had to go back to work, and he helped us get a taxi back in to Baku for I think about 10 manat. It was only about a half hour trip.
We went as far as the Peace Corps office and ordered in sandwiches there. It was air conditioned!! Bob and I also stuck our heads under the faucet in the bathroom that also had a flush toilet—so that we could clean up a little bit. Remember, we hadn’t showered in three days and had ridden all over the countryside sometimes at very fast speeds with all the windows down, since there was no air conditioned car either and I am sure we looked just a little bit worse for wear!!
About 9:00 we took a cab from the Peace Corps office to the train station after once again re-packing suitcases for our three day stay in Aaron’s village.
Our train was to leave at 9:50 and that was another experience!! Aaron had said that the train system was something else left over from the Soviet Union and was a pretty decent one. Once again, we were drenched with sweat by the time we got to our four person compartment. The train compartments were air conditioned, but they didn’t start the air conditioning until after the train was underway!!
Fortunately, our train left pretty much on time, I think, and then the air conditioning came on. We did have one other person in our compartment, but luckily all he wanted to do was sleep, which was a good thing because that is what we wanted to do! Aaron said sometimes, when he takes the train, he will get people that want to talk all night and that is not too good! Shortly after we left the station, the Provodnick (or “sheet nazi” as Aaron called them) came around with a package for each of us containing a top and bottom sheet, a pillowcase, and a towel. Aaron had already told us that if we were lucky, we would have a female Provodnick and he explained why. The male provodnicks usually wanted a bribe, whereas the females did not ask for one. Also, the male provodnicks tended to come around earlier than what they needed to collecting your sheets in the morning. He said that the female provodnicks tended to be a little bit more considerate and would let you sleep a little bit longer. We had a female provodnick—so no bribes!! We probably had the best night’s sleep of our whole trip on the train. Bob didn’t have a place to plug in his CPAP, but with the noise of the train, etc we really didn’t notice his snoring and the other gentleman in the compartment snored also. With the motion of the train, it was very soothing and we had a good night’s rest. The bathroom in the train—once again—disgusting!!
We arrived in Agstafa about 7:30 or so in the morning, I think. We took a short cab ride and were in Aaron’s village of Yenigun. We were greeted by Sadaqat (the older lady of the house) when she let us in the compound. The rest of the family was still sleeping. It was still summertime, so the kids didn’t have school to go to and the daughter did not have to go to her teaching job as a fourth grade Russian teacher. Besides that, for some of you who are really paying attention to my ramblings—you may realize that today was Saturday and so they wouldn’t have had school anyway!!
The family consisted of Sadaqat, Milka, Aysel(daughter—12 years old) and Neejot (son—6 years old).
Their home is really a compound as are most in the village. There is a large house which they are still building. The frame is up and the outside walls are all there, but there are no windows or doors except in one room. The house is built up high and the kitchen is under the house as well as eventually there will be a place for the chickens at night under the house also. There is a humam (bath house) that consists of two rooms, a two room guest house, which the whole family including Aaron is staying in right now and the wonderful toilet!! There is also a fenced “garden” area with fruit trees and I don’t know what else, some vegetables, etc I think. This is all enclosed by a high wall and has a very substantial metal door. Many of the compounds in the village have been very creative and have brightly colored doors and some even have painted their water tank that same color as their door. There is very elaborate tin work around the tops of many of the homes and fences. We do have pictures of some of these when we get our camera back.
I was not feeling real well and was still tired. Since the rest of the family was still sleeping, I laid down in Aaron’s room for awhile and slept too. It was probably the closest I came to “intestinal chaos”, and I was glad that I got over it relatively quickly!! After breakfast, we all took showers, since we hadn’t had that luxury for three days and I think that made everyone feel better and revived.
Later on we took a walk in to Agstafa and tried to get train tickets for our return back to Baku on Tuesday. Unfortunately, no train tickets were available as all of the students were returning to Baku for University. Aaron made a couple of inquiries about some “scalped” train tickets but did not have any luck. Fortunately, a friend in the village was able to set us up with a driver to take us back or we would have gotten to experience the bus for 8 hours or however long it would be. I guess that is not the prime way to travel, or so I am told.
We walked to the other side of the city where there was Heydar Park. (Note: Every town has a Heydar Park and a Heydar Street—this is the name of a former president—who everyone loved?!?) Heydar Alliyev served as the president for something like 30 years, then his son Ilham won the election with 85% (??) of the votes or so they say. Either way Ilham Alliyev is the current president. Many places you would see billboards with Heydar and Ilham on them shaking hands, discussing something, arm around each other and various other poses. We walked by another park on our way to Heydar Park, and Aaron pointed out that this was the park he usually played chess in with his friend Galeeb. However, we could not go in there because women weren’t allowed! Aaron said we could probably get by with it because we were Americans—but we didn’t chance it!! Anyway, once we got to Heydar Park we had ice cream and pop (7-AP and Coke). We had purchased the 1 liter bottles of pop from a store where Galeeb and some of his sons work. We were forever looking for something cold to drink. Ice was not available and even plain old bottled water was hard to find at times. Much of the bottled water was mineral water and carbonated and when that gets flat and warm—it is NOT refreshing!! We learned to ask for water with no “gas”. Bob and Aaron looked forward to a cold beer from time to time. I never did see any evidence of Diet Pop!! The ice cream in the park was very good and reminded me of homemade ice cream as it was very rich and creamy. I can’t remember how much we paid for three bowls of ice cream, but I think that it was less than a dollar.
While in Agstafa we saw many young ladies wearing very high heels and Aaron commented that they were “Baku” girls. Really have no idea how they could even walk. The young ladies were all very pretty everywhere that we went whether it was in the village or Agstafa or anywhere. Aaron made the comment that they didn’t always age real well though—but they did not always have the easiest of life, so aging well may not have been an option!
We returned to Yenigun Village and Aaron’s house. The family was all gone at a wedding. Aaron thought that they would be home to make dinner, but they didn’t seem to be coming back anytime soon, so Bob and Aaron played some chess and I read. Bob discovered that Aaron has indeed improved his chess skills since he has been there and they had a couple of good games. We decided that we were getting hungry and the family had not come back, so Bob and Aaron went to the market and found us some Ramen kind of noodle things. Aaron looked in the refrigerator, but he didn’t really see anything that he thought we would want, and he wasn’t real sure about working the gas, since he had never done it before and it is quite an interesting set-up. I will explain that more later. About the time that we were done eating, Milka came home and asked if we were hungry! We said no thank you. Aaron then asked Milka what our sleeping arrangements would be. He really thought that maybe Bob and I would be given the one finished room in the big house which was a bedroom with a bed—but we weren’t. He said that it is very strange, because even though there is a bedroom done in the big house, they don’t use it! They all prefer sharing one room in the guest house while Aaron has the other room! Anyway, we were given a very thin mat and blanket and pillows to use for the floor of Aaron’s room and those were our sleeping arrangements for the next few days. The floor was not carpeted, but was just a flooring that seemed something like what I would call masonite. Bob and I found ourselves fighting each other for the blanket more than one night!!
After Milka went back to the wedding, we decided to watch a DVD before calling it a night. Bob’s CPAP worked fine until the power went off, which I guess it does in the middle of the night every night for a couple of hours. Not a problem unless you are using a CPAP with a battery that wasn’t holding a charge like it was supposed to—so when the power went off—you had no CPAP—to everyone’s dismay!!
After our midday meal, we decided that it was time to distribute the gifts that we had brought for the family. We had a wind chime, a wood wick candle and then Victoria’s Secret lotion and shower gel for Sadaqat and Milka. For Aysel, we had several different jewelry items, a purse, some glitter nail polish, some lip gloss (appropriate for a 12 year old!), 2 Beanie Babies (one was a white bear with a purple flower and “Illinois” on it and the other was an Uncle Sam bear). We had bubble guns for both of the kids and they were a huge success!! We had a John Deere tractor and baseball cap and some Shrek coloring pages as well as a big box of colored pencils and another big box of crayons for Neejot. We also had sidewalk chalk for both of the kids. At one point, we looked to see Neejot on top of the hamam with his bubble gun shooting bubbles like crazy with his baseball cap on crooked. Before the day was over, Aysel had the baseball cap on and was doing as much coloring as Neejot was!! I might mention that I saw no evidence of any toys at all, surely they must have had some, but we didn’t see them. The only toy we saw was a car made out of wire that was pretty good sized that a neighbor boy had made. Really, rather ingenious!! I know that Aaron has introduced Frisbee to several of the kids at his school and in his neighborhood—that was something that they hadn’t known about before Aaron, but Aaron said that Neejot is really pretty good at it—especially considering that he is only 6 years old!!
We did get to see Neejot at his finest today, though. Aaron had often remarked that the boys especially didn’t seem to have much discipline. Neejot never seemed to have any chores to do, while his sister had things that she was expected to do and we saw her doing every day. This fact seems to be compounded in Aaron’s family because there is no man around the house. Both Sadaqat and Milka are divorced, which is very unusual. Anyway, back to Neejot. At first, I had a hard time remembering Neejot’s name and in my mind I was calling him Neejit—the little shit!! This proved to be a rather accurate description of him at times, unfortunately. Anyway, after we had our midday meal and the gifts had been given, one of the neighbors or maybe he was a cousin came over and was sitting on the steps by Neejot’s bubble gun. All he did was touch the bubble gun and Neejot went nuts!! He reached down and picked up two big handfuls of rocks and threw at this boy who was probably 10 or so. His mother scolded him, but he just ran out of the compound and that was it. When he came back, things were a bit quiet for a little while, but then all was forgotten. In my estimation, that boy could benefit from some good whacks on the backside!! He starts school this year and that should be interesting!! Aaron says one minute, Neejot is looking forward to school and the next he says that he isn’t going!!
I need to back up a little bit and mention our midday meal that day. One of Aaron’s favorite dishes is pilof, which is a buttered rice dish with some sort of real little brown beans in it. I guess that it is a dish that is usually reserved for weddings and special occasions, so I guess that our being there was at least somewhat of a special occasion. We also had chicken for our meal that day. I went into the guest house one time for something and before I came back out, Aaron came in and said to me: “Mom, don’t pay any attention to that chicken with no head that is laying out in the courtyard! They took it outside in to the street to cut off it’s head, so there was no blood in the compound!” Aaron said that he wanted to be the one to behead the chicken one of these days!! (Oh my, what kind of son have I raised?!) Then they boiled the chicken and that was the scrawniest chicken leg I had ever seen! Our meal also consisted of the usual bread, cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, fruit and watermelon. Oh yes, and of course CAY!! I might mention also that Aaron’s family made all their own bread. The bread that they made reminded me of a very large tortilla, and was rather tasty. We had many different types of bread during our stay, but this was the only place that I saw this particular kind. There was a huge stack of it on the table in their room, just covered up with a towel. After our meal and gifts, we were to head to Gasax to meet another volunteer Maria. Aaron’s family has tried their hardest to make Aaron and Maria a couple—but it isn’t happening! They have a hard time understanding the fact that at 25, Aaron is still not married and that he has a brother who is 32 and not married is more than they can comprehend. Even though, after meeting us, they have decided that we are ok, they still wonder where we as parents must have gone wrong in raising our boys!! They have an even harder time understanding, Aaron and Maria just being friends!
We met Maria in Gasax and she had found a driver who would take us up in to the mountains to a place called Goyasan. There was an outdoor café up there and we had a “fizzy drink” (that’s what it said on the bottle) that Aaron compared to the Georgian Lemon Ahd that he had when he went to Georgia in August. Bob, Aaron and I had a pear flavored drink that was very tasty and Maria had a Tarragon one. Maria liked the Tarragon, but it was not my favorite!
Aaron and Maria got to talking about things that had happened since they had been in Azerbaijan and Aaron had made the statement that anymore he found that there was nothing that he thought was weird because everything was so weird and different!! Maria related her “funniest story”. She said that she and a friend were walking along the Caspian Sea. They saw a man in his underwear standing in the Caspian Sea smoking a cigarette and holding a goat!! She said that she had no idea what that was about, but it was weird!!
We had arranged for our driver to come back for us in a couple of hours, but he came back after about an hour. We asked if we could walk up the mountain a little more. After checking with the guards at the military post where we weren’t supposed to be, they told our driver ok because our commander isn’t here!! From there we were able to see Armenia. There is a great deal of animosity between Azerbaijan and Armenia and the inhabitants of each country tell stories about the others killing and eating small children!! Until the conflict, all were friends, and now they are not!! Really crazy, just like most conflicts!! Aaron and Maria referred to it as Kansas since you are not even supposed to utter the word Armenia!! They may have over dramatized just a little bit!! Anyway, at one point, Maria walked out to the end of this overhang and our driver called her back very quickly. When Maria didn’t hear him call her the first time, he got louder and more forceful. He SAID: “Sometimes, the Armenians will see people standing out there and shoot them. We don’t want any Americans shot in Azerbaijan!” Later, we figured out that he just didn’t want anything to happen to us before he got his fee, which I might add was more that what we had originally agreed upon. Maria had him agreed to a 6 manat fee to take us up there and back. When we got out of the car when we got back to Gasax, Maria gave him a 10 manat note and asked for change and he said that no, she owed him 2 more manat. She wasn’t giving him any more money and he wasn’t giving her any change back! At one point, he walked away a little bit and called one of his friends, who he said told him that 12 manat was a fair fee! We finally walked away without our change, but he also did not get his other 2 manat. Both Aaron and Maria were pretty upset about that one, but I guess that it happens ALL the time!!
We took a Marshuka back to Agstafa from Gasax. This is a vehicle that I would compare to a VW bus and we found out just how many people you could fit in a marshuka!! 22—but who is counting!! Aaron says that he has seen them fuller than that!! I think that our ride cost us about 6 manat for the three of us.
That evening, we were invited to Galeeb’s home for the evening meal. I found myself the only female at the table and I was offered booze—both things very out of the ordinary, but I am sure it was because they knew that this was the way it was done in America and they wanted us to be comfortable. It might also have had something to do with the fact that even though I am not a grandmother, I am of the age to be a grandmother. The only women that get any respect are the grandmothers and then they can pretty much do whatever they want to. We did evidence the grandmotherly women exercising their right on this issue on a few occasions!!
Galeeb is a teacher at the school where Aaron teaches and they have become good friends. Galeeb calls Aaron “my little brother”. Galeeb has four sons and is probably almost old enough to be Aaron’s father, but they have hit it off and I know Aaron plays chess with him, etc. Also at that dinner were Shakir, who is a good friend of Galeeb’s and Shakir’s son, who is a student at the Oil Academy in Baku. He was the only young man that I think I saw wearing blue jeans!! Most of the boys and men wore what I would consider dress pants and knit or dress shirts and shoes with very pointed toes. We had a good discussion about politics and literature, and many other things. It was almost embarrassing how much correct knowledge they had about the United States and our history. We learned that Galeeb was a big fan of the author Jack London and he brought his name up several times. Many times, you could tell that especially Elmadhine, who is one of Aaron’s students and who he has been tutoring over the summer, would be really thinking about a word that we had used and would very politely ask about that word.
Aaron had told us a legend—there were many, but this one was about a knight or young man who had done a big favor for the king. To reward the young man, the king had given him a coin and any time he wanted a drink at the local tavern, all he had to do was show them this coin and he could have all the drinks that he wanted. Well, this knight, who although he was brave, was a bit of a scatterbrain, kept losing this special coin and would have to go back to the king for another one. Finally the king had the coin burned into the side of the knight’s neck so that he wouldn’t lose it. Now whenever, the knight went to the tavern, all he had to do was flick the side of his neck where the coin was with his finger and the innkeeper would know to give him a drink. The story is that now that is the way the men in Azerbaijan signal when they are inviting them to drink with you.
(I may have taken a few liberties with the story, but that is the basic gist of it.) Anyway, at Galeeb’s house was the first time that I actually saw this happen. Shakir actually did that once and had I not known the story, I probably would not even have noticed it.
Aaron said that he always knew that he was in trouble when Galeeb would say to him: “Aaron, you are my friend, my comrade—right?” Uh, oh!! Aaron said like many people, Galeeb was always coming up with ways to get rich and all he needed was for Aaron to go in with him on something. One time, it was “why don’t you buy a car from the States and have it shipped over here and we will make money?” Teachers make about $100/month. Galeeb had four sons and on top of that was trying to pay off some huge legal fees. It seems that even in Azerbaijan—families have problems. His problem was with a sister-in-law who wanted her share of money for the house that had been given to Galeeb and his family by his wife’s father. The sister-in-law had all the money she would ever need and so could bribe the judge more than he could. Therefore, she had won the case, but Galeeb was appealing. I might add that the house was really not worth anywhere near the money that Galeeb had spent in legal fees!!
After the meal with Galeeb and some conversation, we walked back to Aaron’s house and I believe watched another DVD before going to bed.
After breakfast, we decided to take a walk in to Agstafa. We exchanged some money and bought some bakery goods at the bakery and some candy to bring home at Galeeb’s market. We were scheduled to have our midday meal with an anthropologist friend of Aaron’s. Her name was Lala and she had been born in Turkey, but now lived in Germany and did teaching and research for the University. She was staying with a Chemistry teacher from Aaron’s school, who was so excited to introduce them since they both spoke English. The man of the house was some kind of city administrator, I never did understand exactly what he did. These people seemed to be a little bit wealthier. There home was very nice, although we never went inside, but had our meal out in the courtyard. This was often the case while we were in the village since the weather was warm. They only had one daughter who did most of the serving. We had a very nice meal and another very good discussion with Lala doing much translating!! A very large portion of their courtyard was shaded by a huge grape arbor and when we got ready to eat, the husband pulled a special type of ladder over and climbed up and picked some grapes and put them on the table. Almost everywhere that we went, you could tell that the people were very attentive to their guests. When we got ready to wash our hands before we ate, I reached for the bar of soap and they said wait and they went and got a fresh bar of soap. As far as I was concerned, the bar of soap that was there was just fine! When we sat down to eat, Bob took some kind of little yellow pepper and indicated that it was “chock yakshah” (not the correct spelling—but that was how it was pronounced—the correct spelling is cox yaxsi) which meant very good. Immediately, they went to get more peppers for Bob!! We also had fried eggplant at this meal, which I had not seen at any other meal we had. There were many fresh herbs that had just been picked from the garden and we were encouraged to try. Lala related how some of the herbs were good for certain ailments. We had cutlet that we had also had in Xinaliq—I had not tried it when we were in the mountains, but tried it here and found it to be very good. As a matter of fact, I would say that it was probably one of my favorite things and I sure would like to have the recipe!! Also, it was here that Aaron and Bob were first served 80 proof vodka and twice distilled mulberry schnapps—talk about a buzz!! Aaron kept saying “biraz” which means a little bit, but even a little bit was too much. Aaron said when were walking home that he needed to walk it off a little bit as he had quite a buzz. Bob said it was “smooooooth”!!
We had made arrangements to meet Elmadhine at the school after we ate, so that Bob and I could see the school. It was very windy and dusty today, but the breeze felt kind of good. I don’t know exactly what to say about the school, it was not real bad, but it would not compare to any school that I have seen in the States!! Aaron took us to the computer lab so that maybe he could try installing some of the Rosetta Stone software that had been donated by a credit union organization in the Quad Cities and that we had brought with us. Unfortunately, the power was not on at the time, and so we just took several pictures of the school, and the new textbooks that were laid out and waiting for the students. Their school was to start the following Monday. Aaron and Elmadhine agreed that they would meet back at the school that evening to see if they could get something done in the computer room.
Aaron decided that we should probably make a stop at the Director of the School’s house. She probably would not be very happy if we did not make an effort to meet her while we were visiting Aaron. I think that it was on the way to the Director’s house that we walked through a cemetery. It was very interesting. Many of the tombstones had a picture of the deceased on them. Also, all of the tombstones were facing East and I think that had something to do with the Muslim religion. I would have loved to have taken some pictures, but I was not sure if that was allowed and there were some workers working in the cemetery, so we didn’t want to offend anyone! We later found out that indeed you were NOT to take pictures in the cemetery!!
We arrived at the Director’s house unannounced, but did find both her and her daughter at home. Her husband is an Engineer and their house was pretty nice by Yenigun standards, I think. The Director supplements her income with bribes. The teachers at the school are paid by the number of classes they teach and the number of classes they teach depends on the Director!! We had tea and when I voiced my like at one certain candy that was chocolate and had a hazelnut in it, she went and brought out a whole dish of hazelnuts and started cracking them!! These nuts had been grown on a tree in her garden. She was very proud of her gardens and before we left, we walked around the gardens and took some pictures of some of the flowers and I told her what the English names for them were. The director was well known for her gardens, but here again, they were nothing like what you would see in the States. I can almost guarantee that there was no Miracle Gro or anything like that used on any of the plants and they showed it! I also didn’t see too much evidence of weeds having been pulled. While we were inside, Bob asked who played the piano and the Director indicated that her daughter did. After much encouragement, the daughter sat down and played very well, but she was very embarrassed. So, Bob and I shared our musical talent by playing “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul”! I also complimented the Director on her lovely crystal and glassware. She had a very large china cabinet on one wall of the dining room where we sat drinking our tea and it was full of lovely glassware and dishes.
Bob spent some time Monday afternoon playing with the kids and I think that especially Neejot enjoyed that and maybe Bob wore him out at least a little bit! Whenever, there was free time Aysel was having Bob help her learn how to juggle, along with one of the neighbor boys who I think was also related somehow.
We went back to Aaron’s house and had the last meal with his family before we were to leave for Baku on Tuesday morning. The meal consisted of cheese/sausage, fried potatoes, bread, tomatoes, peaches, some pastries that we had purchased and watermelon. We did not see evidence of much in the way of dessert, although Aaron said that they do make something like baklava which is very tasty. I think that there were a couple of other things also, but that was ok, because we really didn’t need them anyway!!
Sadaqat and Milka gave me some gifts after dinner: a can of home canned sweet cherries (Aaron says that they do a lot of canning and preserving), some hot pads and a t-shirt. Aaron said that periodically, Sadaqat will fly to Turkey and apparently buy a whole bunch of clothes, and then Aaron will wake up one morning, to the next room of the guest house being full of ladies who are buying what Sadaqat has brought back!! I might add that we never got to taste the cherries, because we did not pack them well enough and they leaked all over my suitcase on the way home. What a sticky mess!!
By Monday, I felt that I was adapting more to the lifestyle and was not as anxious to go home as I might have been earlier. The only thing that kept me going the first few days was the fact that we were able to spend time with our son!! The weather was cooling off on Monday evening also, which was a welcome change. Although Bob had enjoyed the time that we spent with Aaron, he was getting ready to go home. Part of it might have been that he was psychologically preparing himself to leave, since we knew we had to anyway!!
I could understand why Aaron much preferred village life to Baku life. The pace is very laid back and peaceful, at least what we experienced. That same laid back lifestyle can be frustrating at times for Aaron. For instance, when he is trying to accomplish something at school!!
After we ate, Aaron had made arrangements to go back to the school and see if the power was on, so that they could work on the computer stuff. Bob and Aaron were back shortly as the floor of the computer room was being painted and all the computers, desks, etc were out in the hallway.
SOME RANDOM THOUGHTS ABOUT THE VILLAGE BEFORE WE LEAVE:
Even though the courtyards of the compounds and the streets, etc were not the greatest (they were pretty much just dirt paths) and there were no nicely landscaped areas, the people took care of their homes (at least the ones that we saw). In Aaron’s family, they were always wetting down the dirt, etc in the compounds and sweeping. Sweeping seemed to be the pasttime when they didn’t know what else to do! The brooms I am pretty sure were hand made and had very short handles, so they were always bending over to sweep. I wanted to purchase a broom to bring home with me, but didn’t find one—so asked Aaron to maybe buy me one before he comes home!! Also everyone ALWAYS took off their shoes when they went in to the houses. Even little Neejot, who at times, seemed to have so much energy that he wouldn’t even think to take off his shoes, but he always did, sometimes almost at a run as he was entering the house, but the shoes always stayed outside!!
We felt that we were able to experience some different lifestyles while we were there which was good and felt that the very best taste we got of the Azeri people was when we were in Yenigun. We experienced the capital city, the mountains, apartment living, and of course village life.
We saw very few women wearing “Burkhas”—the scarves that I expected to see everywhere. The place that we probably saw the most of this was when we were in the mountains in Xinaliq, but then as I stated earlier, that was like stepping back in time. Aaron had voiced the opinion that in another 20 years, Azerbaijan will be a very different country than it is today!!
In the village, I did wear capris, but Bob did NOT wear shorts. Aaron said that would just be too hard to explain. The little boys wore shorts but not the men. As I already mentioned, the men and teen-aged boys wore what I would consider dress pants and either knit or dress shirts (we even saw this kind of attire on many of the workers on the roads, etc). The women all wore dresses or skirts, but they did wear sleeveless. The younger girls sometimes wore capris.
There were no fenced pastures for the animals. During the day in the village and along the roadsides, etc you would just see the animals wandering. In the villages, the people would let their animals out of the compound in the morning. Aaron said: “the animals don’t need any fences—they know where they live!!”, and sure enough when night time came, the animals came back!! I commented to Bob once when we were walking in the village that I would be so glad when I didn’t have to keep looking down when I was walking all the time so that I didn’t step in any shit!!
You would see very few dogs in the villages and when you did they seemed to look sad and be cowering. Aaron said that most of the time if there is a dog around, someone is either hollering at it or throwing something at it to shoo it away! Consequently, dogs are very leery of people. However, when we were at Galeeb’s house, he had one older male dog that just laid around and then two little puppies that played the whole time that we were there. I guess that not many people really cared too much for dogs, but Galeeb’s family seemed to like them!!
Cell phone time is not measured in minutes, but contours. A contour is one second in length. Aaron said that he could get something like 2500 contours for 10 manat. Everyone seemed to have cell phones, even some of the kids.
A region was named for the largest town in that Region. The Region that Aaron lives in is called Agstafa region and we were in walking distance of the town of Agstafa. A day or so before we got to AZ, a gas station had blown up in the town of Agstafa. Couple people killed, others injured. Anyway, Aaron said that he got a call from the Peace Crops office in Baku making sure that he was ok. It made me feel good to know that they hadn’t forgotten him way out there and were watching out for him!
The gas set-up that I mentioned earlier is a little bit hard to explain, but I will make an attempt. The gas was run through a black hose that Bob saw up in the trees in the garden and was probably hooked in to the gas source out in the street or something. Anyway, when they were using gas for cooking, the hose was run across the yard and into the kitchen area which was located under the house and then up under the burners. There was a valve on the end that was turned on and then lit and there you had a flame!! When we wanted to take a shower, the gas line was run in to the hamam and into the shower room and placed under the water heater. The same procedure was followed as for cooking and the water was pumped in to the water heater from a tank on top of the hamam. It was a little bit of work to heat the water and Bob and I hated to ask them to do this every morning (but we did want to take a shower every day—which I am sure that they thought was weird!!), so a couple of times, we took showers without the water heated and it wasn’t too bad. The water had been sitting in the tank in the sun all day and as it had been fairly warm, the water was not ice cold.
One other story that Aaron told us was how a person (man) gets to be a Toastmaster!! It seems that who ever can hold his liquor the longest wins! When men got together to start drinking, they would start drinking and before long they were toasting very obscure things like (well, I can’t think of something obscure enough—but you get my meaning.) Anyway, the last man standing was considered the best toastmaster!!
Well, enough rambling. We had a driver scheduled to pick us up at 9:00 on Tuesday morning (11th) to take us back to Baku. As I mentioned earlier, we were unable to get train tickets back to Baku and so Lala had found a driver who would take us back to Baku for 80 manat (Well, as always, that amount changed when we got there, but oh well!). After making sure that everything was pretty much packed, we decided to call it a night.
Our driver was there right about 9:00 this morning. Sadaqat and Milka were up to tell us good by, but the kids were still sleeping. I was very surprised that as I hugged first Milka and then Sadaqat, I felt myself getting tears in my eyes and even as I write this, I can feel myself tearing up!! We weren’t leaving Aaron yet, he was coming to Baku with us—thank goodness! As I mentioned earlier, I felt that the last couple of days, I was starting to adapt to village life and the slow pace. I had really come to enjoy the family (even little Neejot!!) and found that I was going to miss them!!
We started off on our 7 hour trip back to Baku. We were thankful that we were able to find a driver. It was kind of nice to be able to see some more of the countryside, since when we made the trip out, we had taken the night train and slept the whole way!!
About an hour outside of Baku, we stopped at a roadside restaurant. There were many of these along the way. You wouldn’t see anything and then all of a sudden, there would be a little building that would serve as the place to cook the food, and then many tables and chairs set out under the trees and blue tarps (Bob said that he would like to have the concession for blue tarps—as we saw a lot of them everywhere even in Xinaliq!!). Aaron said “Oh good, I think that we will have kabobs here!” Well, when the “kabobs” came, they weren’t what I thought of as a “kabob”. “Kabob” means any kind of grilled meat that was cooked outside over an open fire—kind of like “B-B-Q”. Kabobs were also about the only thing that men cooked!! Anyway, our kabob turned out to be maybe some kind of beef on the bone—I am not sure what it was, but I think that it was beef. It was very tough, but remember there was no corn fed cattle here, only grass, etc., so it wasn’t the kind of meat that we are used to getting in the Midwest! We also had the usual cucumbers, tomatoes, bread, cheese, watermelon and of course Cay!!
We then headed on in to the noise and hustle and bustle of Baku. We made a quick stop at the Peace Corps office to pick up the rest of our luggage and then on to our hotel. When we got to the hotel, our driver tried to tell us that he wanted 100 manat. I think that it had something to do with the fact that he THOUGHT(?) he was just taking us to the bus station or something, even though Aaron was sure that Lala told him exactly where we wanted to go. He did stop at the Peace Corps office and wait for us, so after Aaron made a call to Lala, they agreed on a 90 manat fee! I am not sure that Aaron was happy about that, but we were just glad to be where we were supposed to be! Aaron went to a lot of work setting up transportation, etc for us everywhere we went and we really appreciated it!!
After we checked in to our room, we wanted to do some shopping in Baku before we left the next morning. We took a cab to the downtown area and purchased some rugs and scarves from our Flying Carpet man. I was able to haggle with him on the price of the rug that we bought for ourselves and I was pretty proud of myself for that one! He told us that he did not bargain with men, but he did with women (something about the whole motherhood thing, etc.). He was a very good salesman!! We were able to have him wrap up our purchases and take them with us. If we would have made any larger, more expensive purchases, we would have had to get a certificate from the government to state that this was not an artifact or whatever and that it was ok to take it out of the country. An expedited certificate could be ready in a day for a slightly larger fee, but to go regular channels, it took about 8 days and then he would have had to mail our purchases to us. Anyway, as I said we were able to take ours with us. After we left the “Flying Carpet”, we took a stroll down Artists’ Alley and made a few more purchases.
By that time, we were ready to eat and went back to Tequila Junction—the Ex-Pat bar where we had eaten when we were in Baku the first time. I just about kissed the waitress when she asked me if I wanted ice in my 7-Up, until it came and there was one ice cube in a very large glass!! Bob was headed for a rough night and I think it was starting to kick in, as he didn’t eat very much of his meal.
After we got done eating, we stopped at a little market where Aaron likes to stop, because he is able to get some of the toiletry brand names that he is used to in the States. I was looking for a bar of “BARF” soap to bring back, because I thought it was such a novelty. That is really a brand of soap that they have and Aaron has a picture of a sign advertising “BARF” soap. Aaron said that he tried to explain to some of the people in AZ why that was so funny—but he doesn’t think that they really got it!! I couldn’t find any BARF soap, so Aaron promised to get me some before he comes home. Bob also wanted to purchase a few bottles of the different beer that he had tasted while he was there, so we bought four bottles.
We headed back to our hotel, for a very short night. We had made arrangements with the driver who had brought us in to Baku, to take us to the airport the next morning. Our flight was to leave at 7:30 in the morning, so we decided that we needed to be there by 6:00.
Bob had been very brave about eating and drinking everything while we were there, while I, on the other hand, was very cautious. Well, Bob did fine, until tonight, and then spent most of the time that he should have been sleeping in the bathroom!! Fortunately, we had some prescription meds that we had brought along for this very reason, so by the time that we got to the airport the next morning, he was better—just very tired. As little sleep as we both got while we were in AZ, we should not have been able to stand upright at this point, but we were still able to function!!
Our driver called us at 5 am and we were just getting up, so he had to wait a few minutes for us, but not very long. It was a good thing that we had allowed plenty of time because, he did not know where the airport was!! We got to see many watermelon roadside stands that were already open at that time of the morning. He finally stopped and asked for directions. We had seen the sign for the airport, but didn’t say anything because we thought that he was taking a shortcut or something!! Guess Not!!
When we got out at the airport, we paid our driver and this time the fee was what he and Aaron had agreed upon and it was a reasonable one, so it kind of made up for the fee from the day before!! As we unloaded our luggage, there was a man there with a cart to pick up our luggage, we kept telling him “No”, and he just took it anyway. When we got to where we were supposed to be, we said “Thank-You” and he held out his hand!! Aaron kept telling him that we hadn’t asked for his help but that seemed to make no difference to the guy whatsoever. Aaron finally gave him something and then the guy wanted to shake Aaron’s hand and Aaron just turned away from him!!
Since we didn’t know exactly how long it would take us to get through Security, etc and definitely did not want to miss our flight, since the going home was inevitable, we didn’t take too long to say good-by to Aaron. Aaron said he was going to go have some tea and wait a little bit to get a ride back as he was going to the Peace Corps office and they didn’t open until I think that he said 9:00. It was hard saying good-by, but I knew now that Aaron had people that cared about him and would watch out for him and that made me feel good. After spending 10 days with him, I had no doubt in my mind that he could take care of himself, but I was still glad that he had people there watching out for him!!
We got through security with no problems and our plane left Baku on time. When we arrived in Istanbul, we found a friendlier group of people this time—SORT OF!! There was extremely heightened security in Istanbul and we later found out that there had been a bomb scare at the Ankara Turkey airport the day before which just happened to be September 11th!! We went through no less than 6 security checks and each time we were patted down and our carry ons were gone through. Of course, every time you went through security, they took our passports and boarding passes, which made me uneasy because you needed your passports for everything. The last time, they took our passports, everyone else was getting theirs back and we weren’t. Finally, one of the airport employees asked us if we knew why we were being “detained” (YIKES!!). We said no, but we sure hoped that we were going to get on our flight—he assured us that we would. We finally found out that it was something to do with someone else on the plane having the same name as us, and I don’t know if they were worried that someone had a fake ticket—I really don’t know! Anyway, after a call to the Embassy somewhere to clear us, they told us we would be getting our passports back in a few minutes, but that there was another problem!! NOW WHAT?!? They couldn’t find our luggage!! It had only come from Baku to Istanbul for crying out loud—how could it have been lost already!! Well, they did find our luggage and we were the last ones to board the Airbus. I don’t think that either Bob or I really relaxed until we were in the air and knew that they weren’t going to come drag us off the plane or something!!
Our flight was pretty uneventful, except for the old lady that sat next to me. We had one seat between us and at one point when I laid my paperback book on the seat between us, she indicated that I should pick it up and put it in the pocket on the seat back in front of me. She didn’t speak any English, but she got her point across. I didn’t want to start an international incident and we had a long flight ahead of us, so I complied with her request.
We were kind of wondering how it would be going through Customs at O’Hare and hoped that we would have enough time, but everything went smoothly and we were on our flight to Moline. YEAH!! Again, we had not slept at all on the flight and so were very anxious to get home. We arrived in Moline about 5:00 and by 6:00, we had our luggage, our car and were starting for home.
I am not sure what I was more anxious for—a COLD drink, air conditioning, a hot shower or a western toilet!! I think that for Bob it was a regular bed, dependable electricity and COFFEE—maybe not in that order!!
SOME CLOSING THOUGHTS AS TO WHAT WE BROUGHT HOME FROM OUR TRIP:
First of all, I think it was that people are pretty much the same all over the world (not that we have been that many places, but I think you know what I mean). We all want a roof over our heads, food enough to eat, some people who care about us and peace.
We saw a few different ways of life while we were in AZ and none of them had the quality of life that we have in the United States and probably because they did not know any difference, they didn’t miss it, but basically, they seemed to be happy.
We met many very caring, kind and thoughtful people and we enjoyed having meals and conversations with them.
It is a very humbling experience to be in a group of people and have no idea what they are talking about!! Fortunately, we had Aaron to help interpret—I can’t imagine being in a situation where you had no one to help you understand what was being said!!
More than anything else, there is one thing that I hope I don’t lose and that is the new sense of thankfulness that I feel for what we have in the United States and I hope that it helps me to put some of the things that I fuss about in perspective and remember the really important things in life.
I just have to say one more time, how proud Bob and I both are of Aaron and what he is doing. I know that he doesn’t feel like he is accomplishing much, but I think that it will be one of those things that will be felt long after he leaves. Even if he only made the difference in one person’s life, that will be an accomplishment. Aaron seemed to be adapting well to village life and we so much enjoyed the time that we spent with him—now I feel like I need a REAL vacation—just kidding!! We wouldn’t have changed the experience for anything in the world and were so grateful that we were able to have the opportunity that we had!!
A LITTLE BIT OF VOCABULARY:
Yaxsi Vol (pronounced Yakshe Yol)—Safe Trip, Good Journey
Poct (pronounced poked)—Post Office
Sag ol (pronounced Sahool) Thank You
Cox Yaxsi (pronounced choke yakshah) Very good
Medeniyet Siz Eshek—uncultered donkey (This may sound like a very immature phrase, but Aaron said was very effective and made it’s point when used!!)
Chorek—bread or food in general
Gurbaga lar—frogs (imagine Bob asking for the word for frogs!)
October 27th 2007
We are able to talk to Aaron about every two weeks. We were able to find a pretty good phone card rate online. It is really nice to actually be able to hear his voice. After our phone conversation today, I decided that instead of doing a one time journal, it might be a good idea to post to a blog after our phone conversations. I always seem to learn something new every time that we talk!!
Today our conversation was a lot about his school and the education system in general. Aaron said that when Azerbaijan was part of the former Soviet Union, the education system was strong. The Soviets recognized that the education system was directly tied to employment and thus if you wanted to get ahead, you needed a good education. With the fall of the Soviet Union, their education system also fell.
Aaron had said that he felt in 20 years AZ would be a very different country, but my question to him after seeing life in the Village, was how will it change unless they have those who will show them the importance of education and getting out of the village to improve themselves and then hopefully, come back and improve the village also!! Aaron agreed and cited instances in his village in particular where the mentality had to change with the teachers, etc to encourage the young people to learn English, etc.
I voiced the opinion that a village like his could really benefit from a Community Development type person who would help with the infrastructure of the village. Aaron said that people are aware of the fact that constant electricity with no interruptions, a good water supply, and better roads were possible and were frustrated with the way those things were in their village, but needed help to make them better. When you look around at things like construction, building codes (or lack of), etc.—you could see that there is a long way to go yet.
The school where Aaron teaches is two years old, a fact that I did not realize until we were talking today. I thought that the school was much older because of its’ appearance!! There were tiles that were broken or missing on the floors, plaster was falling off the walls and the doors to the classrooms were old looking and didn’t shut properly!! Aaron said that one problem is that they don’t treat the wood and so it warps!!
Anyway, back to the education system. Aaron said that it is very difficult because the Director of his school does not know English and really doesn’t seem to care about learning English all that much, nor does she really care about making the education process fun for the students!!
Just this past week, Aaron’s Regional Supervisor from the Peace Corps had been out to visit him at his site. (Maybe not her right title, but something like that). When they come out to visit, they always have a meeting between the Supervisor, Director of the School, and Aaron. They meet individually and as a group. Aaron said that after she met with the Director, she told Aaron “Our whole conversation was in Azeri!!” and she was genuinely amazed and probably a bit appalled at that fact. Fortunately, since the Supervisor does not know the language, she had brought an interpreter along and it was a good thing!! While there, she wanted to observe Aaron in the classroom. Another challenge, because Aaron never knows ahead of time on any given day which class or classes he might be teaching, so has no chance to do any lesson planning, but just has to fly by the seat of his pants. He has tried repeatedly to get the Director to sit down with him and do some advance planning, but that never happens!! Anyway, since the Supervisor wanted to observe him in the classroom, the Director gave him some text about the dictionary that Aaron was supposed to use, that to quote Aaron: “Was boring as Hell!!” Aaron suggested that they make a game out of it and divide the class into two teams, give each team a Dictionary and a word to look up—the first team to get 5 points would win. He said that he found out early on, that the students love any kind of competition and care nothing at all about winning a prize—just winning! The Director said that she did not think that the game was a good idea because all of the students already knew how to look things up in the Dictionary!! Aaron knew for a fact that this was not true. Aaron has been tutoring one student all summer to take the Flex test and this 9th form (or grade) student took all summer to learn how to look something up in the Dictionary! After much persuasion on Aaron’s part, the Director agreed to Aaron’s idea for a game and Guess What??—the students had a real hard time using the Dictionary!! In a way, it was a good thing that Aaron’s Supervisor was there to witness this whole scenario, because it showed her some of the obstacles that he is up against!! Aaron said that he has gotten the impression in the past, that sometimes the Peace Corps would like him to have more projects going on than what he does. He prefers to have a few projects and do them well. Anyway, maybe from this experience, they will better understand some of the struggles that he has. He was cautioned that he would probably feel like his whole first year was a struggle when it came to accomplishing much and I think that he found that to be very true!!
He has been struggling to get enough computers to work so that he can get the Rosetta Stone software installed. After repeated attempts to get his Director to do something about the computers, he is now going in to Agstafa where there is a computer center and installing the software there. The Director of that center, is going to allow Aaron to bring students from his village in to his center to use the computers. In return, I think that Aaron will be teaching a class there. What a shame, though, that Aaron’s school in Yenigun Village has these brand new computers that were donated and they can’t use them, because there is not enough motivation by the right people to get them working properly!!
Aaron said that the textbooks are atrocious!! They are new and supposedly have been gone over by English speaking people, but he said that he doesn’t know how that could be with the number of mistakes that are in the textbooks!! He has 9th form students who cannot even respond to the question: “How are you?” and yet there are words in their textbooks like audio-synchronization (or some such word). Aaron said, “I am not 100 percent sure that I even know that word!!” How discouraging it must be to the students who can just barely understand the language and don’t know how to use the Dictionary to look up the words and then have books like that!! Aaron said that he thought there were some books available that were some of the American classics, but in a very simple form and he was hoping to get hold of some of them and hopefully, if given the chance, maybe introduce the students to some of these books. I know that Aaron said the teaching style is not one that lends itself towards making learning fun and so it is a constant battle for him, when he tries to do things to pique the students’ interest and make them want to learn. As I mentioned before, the adults in many cases are not doing much to instill the desire to learn in the students. Aaron said that the grading system is 1 – 5 with 5 being the best and the student who sits in the back of the class and pays no attention whatsoever is given a “3”!! What kind of incentive is that for students to really try hard?!
Guess that was the bulk of our conversation this time. Still no sign of our camera, but I have not given up hope. I have been putting off starting our scrapbook of the trip because I am hoping that the camera will show up so I have more pictures. Aaron had sent home several rolls of film with us that he had taken since he first got there and I had double prints of those made so that we had a set also. He said that it is very expensive to get film developed there! Anyway, I do have some pictures of his home and family and some of when we were in Xinaliq—so before too long, I will probably go ahead and start working on the scrapbook. I would like to be able to post some pictures with my blog also and should be able to do that, but would like to wait a little while and see if the camera shows up. I know one sure way to make sure our camera resurfaces and that is to buy another one!! Although, aside from not having any of the pictures we took, the camera was one that Seth and Susan and Aaron had given us for Christmas a couple years ago!!
I think that is about all for this edition, will probably post again in a couple of weeks.