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.