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.


joel said...

You are giving us a window into another world. A world that only exists in the media without feelings or smells.

Keep writing!

joel said...

You are causing me to think of new business ideas for you to encourage. Can you write about what is there in terms of business now?

What is the banking system like?
Do they have courts and what kind?
Do they recognize contracts, property rights or civil rights?
Is education important or is survival?
Would the One Laptop per Child Program help?