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.