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.