Saturday, December 27, 2008

Food, water and gas

Today started out with problems. It is Sunday, the day that we don't have any training classes. Normally I spend part of the day with my 14 year-old host sister, part studying language and another part at the internet cafe. I was the first one up and was relieved that we had our gas turned back on. Last week, someone came to the door and my host sister was told that the gas company needed payment then or the gas would be shut off.

We don't use the gas for heat (we don't have a furnace) but do use it for cooking and heating water for bucket baths. It was shut off for three days before my host mother took a day off work and paid the bill. During those days,we had no tea, which is a huge deal for Azerbaijanis. We ate cold food or asked neighbors to heat up our food.

Today, I surveyed the kitchen at 7:30 a.m. My host mother had been gone at work for about 2 hours. We had not had water since yesterday afternoon and the few dishes we have were used and in the sink. The water goes on about twice a day, sometimes in the middle of the night. That is when we wash dishes and open the valve to put water in the water heater. The water heater only heats a spout in the hamam, not the kitchen water. There is no bathroom (hamam) sink; we use plastic tubs on the floor.

I decided to heat some water in a kettle and wash a couple of dishes that way so I could have some tea and maybe cook an egg. We were out of matches to light the stove. There was no dish soap. I went to look for laundry soap as a substitute. We were out of that too. I grabbed some bread and went back to my room to study.

The day got much better when my host sister woke up, gave me one minat (about $1.20) and told me to go to the small store outside our apartment house to get matches, dish soap, a new sponge and a piece of steel wool to clean dishes. Her mom lets her have one minat at a time for emergencies. There was not enough for all of these items, so the storekeeper kindly removed some of the matches from the box to give me everthing that I needed and divided the dish soap into two containers and kept one. We then had tea.

I took several containers of trash to the dumpster. My family and most others nearby don't buy garbage bags. They use whatever they have around, including buckets. I took three buckets of trash down the street to the dumpsters. Cats congregate inside the dumpsters and the more agile cows sometimes take a look and graze in the dumpsters. My host uncle, who lives nearby, says the neighbors are surprised that the American takes out the trash.

A couple of hours later the water came on and we were able to wash the dishes. I survey what there is to eat later. One head of cabbage, some potatoes, a bucket of beef fat, one apple and a round loaf of bread. I boil some potatoes that we can fry later.

Reading this, you may be surprised to hear me say that I am happy with my family and that I feel they treat me well. That is because I am part of their family, not a guest and they spend time helping me and interacting with me even when it must be a chore. They are competitve with the other host families in our cluster of four and want my language skills to be the best. They also want me to learn about their culture and traditions. The include me when they visit other families and tolerate the things they find strange about me. Some of these things are liking to bathe more than once a week, not washing my hands after I wash the dishes, sometimes forgetting to wear slippers in the house (Azeris do not wear shoes in the house) and forgetting not to put things on the floor, like my book bag and an occasional book.

The more I visit other host families, people I meet in the neighborhood and in other cities, the more I realize that my family is just one family and I am frequently wrong when I try to generalize their way of life to all Azerbaijanis. My family lives in an apartment in a complex with livestock and very few amenities. The place we were invited to at Thanksgiving is a short distance away, but is a spacious single-family home with a large courtyard, turkeys and chickens, a pet dog, beautiful wood floors and moldings and many modern conveniences. The host mother stays home and cooks meals in a large well-appointed kitchen and spends a lot of time with her family.

My mother works almost every day from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. She eats no meals at our house. She is divorced and lives in her brother's apartment and spends time with her daughter infrequently.

I gave my family the can opener that my sister sent. It is a manual can opener that probably cost $5. I did this because I wanted to give them a gift and because they open their cans with a large knife. I didn't think this was a safe practice. My host sister thought it was a device for removing teeth. My host mother, who is a cook in a restaurant, had no idea what it is. I demonstrated it and they were amazed. They had the same look on their faces when I first popped out my contact lenses in front of them and when I use dental floss. I stopped wearing contacts because I was not sure about the water, even though I boil it and also it seemed extravagant to wear them when most people in my neighborhood don't have some necessities.

The fruits and vegetables here are absolutely wonderful. The markets are full of beautiful produce, very cheap as it is produced locally in Azerbaijan. My family.buys very little produce other than potatoes, cabbage and an occasional onion, so I look at it wistfully or occasionally buy a few pieces on the sly and eat it away from home. I also secrete a few pieces of fruit at a time in my book bag and give them to my host sister. Peace Corps trainees do not have much money to spend and are not supposed to use our own money here. My family's diet consists of a lot of bread, some really salty cheese, the potatoes I mentioned and some jam they put in their tea. Once or twice a week they have a small amount of mutton or chicken.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


I recently met someone who was an adult in 1991, when the Soviet era ended in Azerbaijan and who speaks English well enough to give me details on a phenomenon I have noticed in Azerbaijan--that is that many people here feel that life was much better under the Soviets. Until now, I was not able to transcend the language barrier enough to get the details of why they think this. I recently met Flora who speaks passable English. She is about 50 years old and so lived a good portion of her adult life under the Soviets as well as under democracy. She has a good job, a nice home and a grown son and visited the US for the first time for a month in April as part of a professional conference. She is quite opinionated on a number of topics. Here is her opinion of the differences before and after 1991 when the Soviet Union fell:

"Everything was so good under the Soviet Union. There were 15 countries in the Soviet Union and we were all friends. We could travel freely among these countries and since we studied Russian in school, we had a common language. Azerbaijan had a big part in producing products and growing produce for these other areas, which made us prosperous. We felt we were surrounded by friends and people who had the same goals and desires as we did. If one region had a natural disaster or problem, others would help us and we felt secure, with plenty of food and a home for all. Regions with aggressive or dangerous ideas were restrained by the other regions.

The Soviet Union collapse was very unexpected for us. Overnight, all of these countries were expected to function independently and compete with each other. There was no government, no jobs, schools or any way to produce things. Everything was chaos. Now, we don't have a common language anymore, and we don't have the same goals."

I interjected that we had heard in the US that food was scarce in Soviet days, that collective farms were inefficient and there were long lines for shopping for food and consumer goods.

"No, you are wrong! We had plenty of food and it was cheap. We had good doctors and medical care. I have to have two jobs now to have a standard of living that is not as good as it was under the Soviets. I work my (professional job) from 9-5 five days a week and do other work from 8-9 a.m. and 6-8 p.m seven days a week. I am tired. I don't feel free now and I felt free with the Soviets."

I asked her what she thought about the US when she visited.

"I liked the people that I met. They were very friendly and smart and invited me to their homes. I liked the university that I stayed at. It was very beautiful with top quality facilities. The streets and buildings I saw were very high quality. I also liked visiting Washington, DC. It is a beautiful city.

I don't understand why a country that is supposed to be First World has homelessness. No one is Azerbaijan is homeless. Everyone has a home. Americans like to say they have the best things and democracy is wonderful. They also say they believe in God. How can people who have all these things and want to do God's work tolerate homelessness?"

I told her that I don't speak for all Americans, but that some feel that being homeless is the fault of the homeless and that if they try harder, they will be able to afford a place to stay. During this discussion, it came out that some children are homeless or live in cars or shelters. She was unaware of this and was appalled. I told her that another reason people tolerate homelessness is that they feel the problem is so big it can't be fixed and also that many homeless people suffer from mental illness and are hard to manage.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

New Community, End of Training Nears

For three days I visited the city I have been assigned to live and work in for the next two years. It is about 200 miles from the capital of Baku, where the Peace Corps office is located, a train ride of about 7 hours. After traveling to Baku from my training village, I took a night train to my new community. My "seat" on the train was the bottom bunk in a tiny room with two bunk beds. The other beds were occupied by a woman about my age and two of her male relatives. They all snored.

On the way back to Baku, my compartment mates were a boy about 10 years old, his dad and another man. This custom of sharing night train compartments with beds in such close quarters with men seems strange to me in a Muslim country in which relationships between men and women are fairly limited. After saying hello to them and beginning to read in my top bunk, I noticed that they were taking pictures of me with their cell phones. After taking a few pictures, they asked me if I wanted to see the pictures. Instead, I decided to talk with them and show them pictures of my family and friends in the US, hoping they would see me as more of a human being than a curiosity. After that and some follow up questions, they stopped the picture taking and we all fell asleep.

My new host "mom" sent her male cousin to pick me up. I noticed at once that there is no livestock in the streets as I find in my current home. The city has a more prosperous look with nice parks, a new 10 story apartment building going up across the street and a nice hotel next to my apartment home. There are several institutions of higher learning here and my host mom works at one as the chair of the English Department.

In contrast to my home without running water at my training site, this one has hot and cold water, with a tank on the roof for times when public water is not forthcoming. My new home has laminate floors (Pergo) and a bathroom similar to one in the US except that there is no shower stall, but a spout coming out of the wall. It has a living and dining room and two bedrooms. It is a very lovely home.

My host family consists of my mom, her son, who is currently serving the required one year in the Azerbaijan military and grandma, who is currently in Baku visiting her son. My host mom is very welcoming and gracious. I am not sure where everyone will sleep except that according to the Peace Corps guidelines, I get one of the two bedrooms.

I will be living here beginning December 15 if I am sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer on December 10 as I hope to be. So far, in a very unusual situation, all 61 volunteers who started out are still here. Normally the dropout rate is around 10 percent. We are a good group, diverse age-wise. The youngest trainee is 22 and there are quite a few in their 20's. We have about 15 who are 50 or older which is considered a high number.

Our oldest volunteer will be 80 soon and served in the Peace Corps in Honduras in the '80's. She is very spirited and I am excited that she will be in the same city as me. She will work with youth.

In the smaller villages, some volunteers will be the only one in their area, but I will have 8 with me in this city. One of my trainee friends will work in a small town by herself. She lived on a farm in Nebraska and will work with an organization to help farmers find markets for organic produce so they can switch over if they want to.

All of us are assigned to a host organization to which we will devote part of our time. Mine is a micro finance institution. They help small businesses with loans of $50 to $50,000 and mainly serve the poor. My organization is worldwide and was begun in about ten years ago with funding from USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and is now on their own. These organizations loans have a very high repayment rate--many times over 99 percent as they are careful and there is much social pressure to repay loans.

The rest of the time, we will network in the community and fulfill the three goals of the Peace Corps:

1. To train the Azerbaijani people
2. To help Azerbaijanis to know more about Americans
3. To help Americans to know more about Azeris.

To do that we find secondary projects we are interested in and work on them with Azeris.

We don't do things for people or fix their problems; we facilitate people and communities fixing their own problems in a sustainable way--which means they will be able to keep the project going themselves once we are gone.

I recently visited a smallish museum of Azerbaijani antiquities in one of the regions. It had carpets, brass and gold items and tapestries. I had free reign in the museum and carried a large shoulder bag. The items were displayed openly with no glass surrounding them. I kept thinking that in the US, this museum would have been cleand out in a day or so.

Before I joined the Peace Corps, I had not had much contact with government agencies, but had heard there is widespread waste and corruption in government organizations. I also expected a lot of bureaucracy. To be fair, I know in corporate life, there is much mismanagment, corruption and waste also. However, from my point of view, the Peace Corps seems to operate very frugally and effectively. Our course of instruction is concise and effective with our time used to good advantage. The language instruction is very good and flexible according to our learning style.

The Peace Corps recycles things we use, like our sleeping bags and water filters, has modest offices and does not give us access to copy machines, computers, paper or office supplies other than a pad of paper and pen on the first day. Some prospective host families decline to host a PC volunteer because they don't feel they are given enough money to cover the cost of food and utilities.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

sheep etc.

I know what I want to be when I am done in the Peace Corps. I want to be a shepherd. Seriously. There are flocks of sheep all over my neighborhood, from about 10 sheep to about 30. The shepherds are either men or women who walk around part of the day with the sheep looking for grazing spots. The rest of the day, she sheep are resting in their outdoor enclosures, basically a small fenced area with a water trough and a partial roof. The shepherds mostly handle the sheep themselves although some have a dog.

There is a sheep enclosure right outside my classroom window. When the sheep are there, they look quite happy. Once in awhile, a couple of sheep will head butt each other but otherwise nothing seems to stress them out. We have some sheep cheese and milk in the markets here, but I also know that they are eaten in Azerbaijan. The wool is used to stuff mattresses too. It doesn't appear to be the kind of wool used ror clothing.

Walking around with a dog and a flock of sheep--what a great job! I watched a shepherd and a dog direct about 30 sheep across a major road last week. The drivers can be crazy, but the flock waited, then at a break in traffic, the shepherd and dog quickly directed the sheep across the road. Of the man, dog and sheep, no one looked worried.

When I think about the ways that Azerbaijan and the US differ, time is the major equation in many of the changes. Here are three of the ways that the passage of time is the factor:

Environmental and Safety issues--There are no mandated pollution controls or safety features in vehicles or consumer products that I know of. The air in areas with a lot of traffic just smells bad and sometimes my lungs just hurt. The mini buses that I take around town are mostly very old and in poor condition. The standard seat cover on these mini buses has a logo of "Titanic" on it. Apt description, but curious.

Gas water heaters, furnaces and stoves don't appear to have safety features either and are a true fire hazard. The Peace Corps has given us smoke and carbon monoxide detectors for our rooms. Trash bins are not common in my neighborhood and trash is strewn around the streets, beaches and the perimeters of apartment complexes, where dogs, cats, cattle and horses eat it. I walked around an open manhole cover recently on a crowded street. No one seemed concerned.

I remember the time in the late '60's when environmental controls and seat belts were added to autos and later when child safety seats were mandated. Most of the poplulation seemed to vociferously oppose them as government interference, too costly and not necessary. Also, I remember seeing the mass introduction of trash bins being criticized as too costly to pay for and maintain pickup. I remember the commercials in print and broadcast about "don't be a litter bug" as most people just threw trash on the ground as they walked around. And in the case of the open manhole cover, I remember people saying if people would just take responsibility for themselves, we wouldn't have to have the government responsible for our safety.

Manners and Conduct--Azeris are more formal than people in the US. Older people are shown respect in the way they are spoken with and treated. Homes are orderly and neat, with nothing on the floor. You must remove your shoes in the home and put on slippers, which are kept by the door. Clothing is neat and pressed and shoes are dressy and polished. Guests are treated in a very special way and always feel welcome. Children run around outside the school and act crazy there and between classes, but once in the classroom they are quiet, obedient and respectful. Male teachers wear a suit and tie and female teachers wear skirts and blouses or suits.

All this occurs in homes that may not have running water and eat a lot of potatoes and bread becaues they can't afford anything different.When trying to remember all the rules in Azeri homes, I finally came up with a guideline. I remember the way my grandmother expected me to act in 1960 and how she kept her home. By acting the way Grandma would want me to, I can stay out of trouble. Although I still miss running around the house in bare feet.

The Status of Women--Azerbaijanis have told us that Azerbaijan gave women the right to vote before the US did and Azeri women can change their names when they get married or not--no pressure either way, apparently. However, the status of women here is a few decades different than ours. Some of us took part in a showcase debate with young Azerbaijani college students on the status of women. We drew the pro side that women should have a more flexible role in society. The young people in the debate and some other Azeris I have spoken with use the same arguments that used to be heard (and in the case of Phyllis Schlafly and her Eagle Forum still are heard) in the US: Women should be protected, girls are not really interested in playing sports, why would women want to act like or look like men, the family will suffer, divorce will increase.

We are rapidly coming to the end of our training, December 10. We will then disperse to our permanent training sites. I will tell you more about that later. Trainng has been a wonderful experience with many very impressive and talented people (mostly Azeri, with some Americans) helping us become Peace Corps volunteers.

Monday, October 27, 2008

My family watches the news on TV and although I don't understand it, almost every day there is video footage of Bush, McCain and Obama. I asked my family who Barak Obama is. They had no idea. I showed them a picture of the Dalai Lama and the 14 year-old knows who he is, but though he was an American. The rest don't know. My family has no books or newspapers, which is typical of the families in my neighborhood. I think a few of the reasons are that many books are not translated into Azeri, families in my community do not have a tradition of reading for pleasure and translating books for such a small demographic would be very expensive.

Many of the TV shows are in Turkish, which is widely understood here. Also, many adults speak Russian, as the parents can choose for their children to study Azerbaijani or Russian in school. When people recognize the Peace Corps trainees as foreigners, they often try to speak Russian to us, which is really confusing as we are trying to figure out why we don't understand any of the words they are using.

Two weeks ago when I was in Mingachevir, a lovely city some distance away observing a Peace Corps worker, I went to a softball game that another PC worker was coaching for Azeri boys. They were quite good at the game. We were joined by some friends of the Peace Corps people who were visiting from the capital, Baku. They were all Europeans, part of a program for young European Union people to work on community service projects in needy countries. They were from Iceland, Germany, Spain and France. We taught the Europeans how to play the game. After awhile, I noticed an elderly shepherd with about 10 sheep and lambs start to cross the outfield. I went to admire his sheep and afterward, curious, he kept the sheep in the outfield while he watched the game. The sheep seemed oblivous and just kept munching grass while balls flew all around them.

Sheep and shepherds are everywhere in my neighborhood too. When I ask, most say that the sheep are raised for producing cheese, but I also know that sheep are commonly eaten in Azerbaijan. Every morning I greet the geese outside my home with "Sabahiniz xeyr, gaz". Good morning geese. They are about the only ones that don't correct my speech.

I realized that my family is one of the few in the neighborhood without running water. Actually, it does run a couple of times a day. They keep the taps on at all times with the bathtub plugged up. The bathtub fills up with water and the excess drains into the floor drain. It also fills up the hot water heater, which is only turned on once in a while. The water is then removed from the tub a little at a time for cooking (they boil it first), to wash hands in a large ladle (we have no sink) and to flush the toilet. I also "shower" by ladling water. Two of the other three trainees in my group that live in the neighborhood have hot and cold running water, although two have toilets that don't flush without a bucket of water being poured down it.

Did you ever hear Americans complain about people who live and work in the US and don't speak English? Well, right now I sympathize with all of those people. We have been here for five weeks, live with families who don't speak English and we have at least four hours a day of language instruction six days a week. In the evening, we go home and try to talk with our families the rest of the night. For the most part, we are unable to put together any kind of sentence within a reasonable timeframe and vocabulary that we learned yesterday is a total mystery today. I can't imagine how anyone who works full time and has a family who doesn't speak English to them can learn the language. One of the great things about being here is that our families are very patient and praise us for the slightest improvement. Strangers go out of their way to help us and wait for us to try to figure out what to say. Pantomime rules the day sometimes.

My language instructor gave me a toast to say at a wedding that I went to. He warned me that if I misprounounced the last word, instead of saying "May you be happy" I would be saying "May you be dead". I will be thrilled when I have the vocabulary of a two-year-old.

We had the opportunity to meet the Peace Corps Azerbaijan Country Director this week. He is the head honcho of the Peace Corps in Azerbaijan. Zoltan Szigethy was born in Hungary 69 years ago, fled to Germany when his family was forced to leave by the Russians, lived in Germany for five years and moved to the US as a ten-year-old. After an interesting career that included being an urban planner and retiring twice, he joined the Peace Corps several years ago.

Zoltan, as he prefers to be called, was a Peace Corps volunteer in 1963-65 and gave an inspiring talk about the responsibilities we have in representing the United States as well as some principles that he lives by. He reminded us that we are committed to improve the lives of the people with whom we live and work, and not to complain when we serve under conditions of hardship. . He spoke of our need to integrate ourselves into the communities we live in and cooperate with them, learn with them and respect them. Sometimes we are the only American our Azeri friends have known or will know, so what we do will represent Americans to them.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Some interesting tidbits I have learned recently about my area of Azerbaijan:

My family is Muslim, yet their family albums show them standing around Chiristmas trees just like the ones in the US and posing with Santa. It turns out that Azerbaijanis do the tree and Santa for the December 31 New Year, the biggest holiday here. Santa is apparently just a holiday guy and doesn't bring presents.

On the local buses, called marshrutkas, men always give up their seats so women don't have to stand unless the bus is overloaded. You pay at the end instead of at the beginning and if someone is standing and has a package or a baby, they will place the package or baby on another passenger's lap. Women even hand over their handbags to a seated stranger to hold while they stand.

Azerbaijanis are very hospitable and visit their relatives and friends often. Typically friends and relatives just show up without advance notification, but are welcomed, fed and can stay as long as they like. Cay (tea) is always served (prounouced chai) and people drink it all day long and even feed it to babies.

My family has no can opener and opens their cans by stabbing them with a large knife. My sister has mailed me a can opener to give them as a gift.

The penchant for dressing nicely even extends to road construction workers, who wear safety vests over their suits and ties while they work.

This weekend, The Peace Corps sent us out to a distant region to live with a Peace Corps worker and find out how they live and what they do. I went to Mingachevir, which is a region about 150 miles away. The city is beautiful, with a lovely large park and a dam which supplies electricity to much of the country. The city is very walkable, clean and attractive. The lack of catalytic converters on vehicles makes everything quite smelly, though. The Peace Corps worker spends part of her time working with an international aid group and the rest of the time works on projects that the community has idientified as being needed. Some of the important guidelines in the Peace Corps for projects are:

Do not do things for people. Do help them do it themselves and learn.

Do not establish a relationship based on your being more knowledgeable or otherwise superior.

And the hallmark of a successful project is if the Peace Corps worker gets no credit because people think they accomplished it themselves.

The thing that has most surprised me since I came here is the high number of Azeris who wish the Soviet Union were still running things. The collapse in 1991 took the Azeris by surprise and many approved of the way the country was run. Decisions were made for them, things got done, they had jobs and dependable incomes and things were stable. They had Russian friends they worked with and served in the armed forces with. I don't recall this attitude every being discussed in the US.

All over Azerbaijan almost every city or town has a park named after Heydar Aliyev, who was one of the first presidents. One of his jobs was head of the KGB in Russia and he is very much respected and admired here.

An important issue for the country is for the citizens to accept that no one is going to run the country for them and they will need to do it themselves. The corruption that is part of the government now has made some Azeris feel hopeless. Today is presidential election day here, which happens every five years and the few people I asked said they were not interested in voting.

A note on bumper cars--a Peace Corps volunteer told me that in her town, Azeris ride bumper cars in a very orderly fashion, like they are going around a track. Several Peace Corps workers got in cars and began smashing into each other, much to the surprise of the Azeris. Eventually the Azeris got into the spirit and began gingerly hitting each other also. At the end of the ride, they clapped.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

October 2008

My Peace Corps adventure in Azerbaijan began with a night bus ride from the airport to our training site that was reminscent of an Indiana Jones escape scene. The bus hustled along mostly dirt roads with livestock, other vehicles seemingly coming out of nowhere, a dump truck backing out in front of us and several trucks by the side of the road loaded with apples and watermelons.

After spending three days in the US with my fellow 60 trainees, our bus ride in Azerbaijan took us to a pleasant resort 30 minutes or so from the capital city. We spent another four days here with further orientation and training. The sessions were very well organized and presented and covered language, culture, safety and medical topics. The Azerbaijani and American staff is extremely professional, well-spoken and talented. I felt we were very well prepared to meet our host families a the end of our fourth day.

The group of 62 trainees is located in several villages surronding a main training site within view of the Caspian Sea. Each group of four or five trainees has a language and cultural facilitator, an Azerbaijani who will spend four hours a day six days a week teaching us language and then spend some time orienting us to the transportation system, be the link to our host families (we have very limited communication skills at this point) and will teach us miscellaneous other things we need to know. The rest of our time is spent in other classes preparing for our new assignments. We will stay in our trainng villages until December 20 when we hope to be sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers.

My home is a five-story apartment building, part of a large apartment development which resembles a public housing project in the US--if that project would include a large continent of chickens and geese with the occasional herd of sheep passing through and cattling wandering nearby. The apartment complex is Soviet Style, a drab complex devoid of any ornamentiation in a community that in Soviet days served as a home for the workers who staffed the many factories in this community.

My family consists of a mom, her daughter, a charming 14-year-old girl, the mom's brother and his 20-year old wife. The mom works long hours in a bakery in the capital city, so the girls are with me most of the time I am home. They sit in my room teaching me Azeri, listening to my music or theirs, showing me how to wash my clothes by hand, cooking for me, looking at my stuff from the US, teaching me how to dance Azeri style for the upcoming wedding of a relative, and just generally hanging around.

Six days a week I go to school with the 14 year old in my family, where my group meets with our language facilitator until 1:00. We then go to another village for an afternoon class and work on projects and homework in between. My language teacher is a very talented young Azerbaijani man who recently completed his mandatory military service in Iraq, where he worked with some US Marines.

Most Azerbaijanis have never met a foreigner and stare at us as we walk around the neighborhood. My first impression is that both men and women dress modestly with no shorts or bare arms on men and no shorts for women no matter how hot it it is. People go to work and school dressed in business suits for men and dresses or dressy pants for women. They look very nice, with clothing immaculate and pressed although there are no washing machines or dry cleaning. Young people here are rarely overweight, although the diet consists of a lot of bread, rice and potatoes cooked in a lot of oil. This may be due to the small portions and the lack of eating between meals.

Playing sports is not popular here and the roads are too rutted for bike riding. The Caspian Sea is two blocks from my home but is not a recreation option as the beach is covered with trash and has a bad smell. Cows, cats and dogs wander the beach.

My Peace Corps experience is very positive, stimulating and interesting. We are working hard and making good progress in our language and cultural understanding as well as understanding how to approach our assignment.

Monday, September 1, 2008

You are what you think. With your thoughts you make the world.

The Buddha