Monday, December 28, 2009

Heat, Bathrooms and Losing Weight

Update--In my last post, I say how cold my home is. Since then, my family had a gas furnace installed in the living room. So this room is warm and some of the heat flows to my room.

Before I came to Azerbaijan, my biggest worry was about the toilets. I had heard that squat toilets are common. Also, I had heard that Azerbaijanis do not use toilet paper. Both of these things are true. Also, now they are non-issues for me and many times I think the no-toilet-paper thing is better.

The squat toilet is basically a porcelain fixture at ground level. It either flushes or you pour a bucket of water down it. Squatting is no big deal. Since everything is flat on the floor, it is easier to clean the toilet. Some people just turn a hose on it every day.

Toilet paper is replaced by water. The newer toilets have a spray attachment next to the toilet and you just squirt to clean yourself. The older toilets have a strangely shaped jug of water with a spout that you use the same way.

The Azerbaijanis feel it has two advantages—the first, it is cleaner—rather than wiping things, you are really cleaning them. The other is that you don’t have to buy or dispose of toilet paper.

When I think of how many millions of rolls of toilet paper Americans use every day, it converted my thinking pretty quickly. I wonder where all of this paper goes.

I know a family with a baby. Whenever the baby has a diaper change, they immerse the baby’s butt in water. They feel that wiping him off just is not clean enough.

We just welcomed four new Peace Corps Volunteers to our town. They have been in training for three months. They and some of their 59 fellow new volunteers have had time to experience the “Azerbaijan diet” and many have found the pounds rolling off. Just by eating like an Azerbaijani, people who have carried extra pounds for years appear to effortlessly be losing them.

These are the ways Azerbaijanis eat and don’t eat:

1. Lots of tea, maybe a cookie or something sweet with it.
2. Pop and juice as a special treat, not stocked regularly.
3. A light breakfast—bread, tea, maybe cheese or fruit.
4. Small portions and no snacks
5. Processed food eaten rarely.
6. No eating after dinner.
7. Dessert is often fruit.
8. Trans fats don’t appear to exist here
9. Lots of dairy fat in cooking
10. Cheese and yogurt instead of milk
11. Eating fruits and vegetables in season.

The other reason that weight falls off easily is that many volunteers do a lot more walking. Many have to walk to work and to get food and shop for anything. To visit friends involves walking also. So it is common that trainees pack a lot of clothes and can’t wear some of them within a few months. Often the weight stabilizes after 6 months or so A few people gain weight, usually the ones who are less active here than at home.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


This is not a good time of year in Azerbaijan. It is cold and my family is poor. It gets dark at 6:00, so evening activities done in the nice weather are exchanged for staying at home in my cold house.

This is the first time I have lived in a house. I lived in apartments before and they were warm even if the family did not have a furnace. I think it was partly because the other families around them had furnaces and also because in a small apartment, the gas stove can spread the heat to the next room.

My family can’t afford to turn on the heat. We have a huge home by Azerbaijani standards and by American standards a large home. It is two-story with a large courtyard. The thing that one immediately notices is that the house is not finished. There is scaffolding and ladders around, wires sticking out of the walls and construction debris scattered around. The grandma says that the family ran out of money to finish the house.

My family consists of the mom, two daughters, 13 and 14 years old, and their father, who lives and works in Russia. This is because there are relatively few good jobs in Azerbaijan. Because foreigners can’t usually get good jobs there, most men don’t send much, if anything, home and usually can’t afford to come home either. I have heard a statistic that 1 of every 8 employed Azerbaijani men works in in a foreign country.

This is an area in which Azerbaijanis complain about capitalism. During Soviet times everyone had a job and families were not separated against their will. Also most people in Azerbaijan had similar living standards, with money for food, utilities and medical care with some discretionary funds.

But now, instead of working at jobs that pay enough to support a family, some men will not work at all for years. Most unemployed men, though, have a job that they designed themselves, like selling fruit from the trunk of a car, selling lottery tickets on the street , or setting up a shack in a parking lot and fixing shoes---anything to get out of the house and earn a little money.

My host mother needs a full-time job but can’t find one. She sells cosmetics from a catalog, bakes and cooks things to sell and has me as a boarder. She says her cosmetics and cooking bring in about 50 manat a month, about $60. The Peace Corps pays her 110 manat a month, about $132, with extra in the winter for heat (which we don’t have). Out of this she buys and cooks my food and supplies electricity, gas and water for me. She says food for a family of 5 would normally be 200 manat a month, but she does not have that much income, so they eat cheaper. The major way they do that is by having one item for each meal--such as a plate of macaroni, soup or potatoes. I am not sure how she pays the other expenses—maybe from my heat money?.

I have noticed that when Azerbaijanis talk about their salaries (not a private topic here) they make so little that one can’t figure out how they survive. One of the problems that people complain about is the underground economy. Also, I think that different generations of families living together and pooling their money, as well as the relative ease of growing food in much of the country, makes it easier survive.

Most homes have a gas pipe sticking out of the wall and they install a small metal contraption to it in the winter. This becomes the furnace. It is like a radiator, but is hotter. It is kept on when the family is home and is turned off when they go to bed. People close off parts of a larger home and sleep in one room to be in the warmth.

My house has central heating, a rarity in Azerbaijan. It was on last winter, when I didn’t live here, but the family is poorer now and can’t afford to turn it on this year. The kitchen is warm, though, because they have a gas stove burner going all day.

I was somewhat irate for awhile because I want some heat, but I notice that my family huddles in the kitchen and eats their one item for dinner, unlike other families that have several. So I eat my soup and plot how to keep my room from freezing so I don’t have to spend all of my time at home in the kitchen.

The talk in the kitchen revolves around issues of being poor. The girls are told every day that there is no money and the phone calls revolve around trying to figure out how to pay bills and get contributions from family members who have more money than they do.

My plan for not freezing in my room is that my PC friend gave me an old space heater. I found out, though, that this is not a good way to become warm. The heater blows hot air, but if I put my cold hand right up to the grill, the side facing the grill becomes warm, but the other side remains cold. Usually I give up and wrap up in a blanket.

The shower is another problem. The shower room is freezing cold and the hot water stream is a dribble. So if I am wetting my hair, for example, it takes a minute to get enough water on my hair to work with the shampoo. My body is freezing during this time.

I could move to another home and have heat and a warm shower. Every family has their drawbacks, though, so I think I will stick out the winter with this family. Come spring, I think it will be livable here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Recipes from Azerbaijan


I am always talking about how great the food is in Azerbaijan. Besides the fresh ingredients and bountiful fruits and vegetables available during most of the year, in Azerbaijan almost everything is made from scratch daily.

Many families also make their own bread. It is mostly white bread in round loaves. I always had the impression that making bread required lots of hand-kneading or time spent with a mixer. Azerbaijanis make bread without a lot of kneading and it looks and tastes just fine.


Take some lavash bread (round and flat—flatter than pita bread), sprinkle with a few tablespoons of grated or crumbled sheep or goat cheese and a few tablespoons of some fresh, chopped herbs. Put a little oil in a pan, fold the lavash in half with the contents inside. Fry for a minute or two until hot.

Roll up to eat or cut in pieces to eat it.

We have freshly cut bunches of herbs available every day. A good-sized bouquet of herbs is about 25 cents.

Garlic/Yogurt Sauce

Mix a couple of cups of plain yogurt with a few cloves of minced garlic. Let it sit for a day or so in a glass jar in the fridge. It makes a great topping for vegetables, pasta or to add to the top of soup or stew.

Beet Salad

I know, you don’t like beets, you don’t know what to do with them, etc. But many volunteers here like beets now. This salad is great and easy to make.

Serves 6

One pound of beets, cleaned and peeled
½ cup of small pieces of walnuts
8 cloves of garlic, minced
some mayonnaise or sour cream

Cook the beets in boiling water until you can get a fork through them, but not easily. Cool them off. Either shred the beets on a medium or fine part of a hand grater or put them in a food processor on the “grate” setting. Mix the walnuts, garlic and beets together and stir until everything is well mixed.

Add enough mayonnaise or sour cream and mix again until everything is stuck together somewhat. The amount of mayonnaise/sour cream is an individual decision. Taste and add salt and pepper if you want. Cool in the fridge until cold. Added excitement--your urine will be red for a couple of days. Maybe save this for Valentine's Day?

Thursday, December 3, 2009


There is a little dog that lives outside my home. She is unusual because usually the dogs in Azerbaijan are homeless and feral. They stay away from humans and are around mostly at night, when they go through garbage heaps to find food. Muslims traditionally don’t like dogs, but I understand in Christian countries nearby there are many homeless dogs too.

My family lived in Moscow for 10 years and learned to like dogs there, so we have an inside dog. The neighbors think it is crazy. Her name is Julia and she is a chow. She is a beautiful, smart dog.

My host mother has been tossing an occasional scrap to this medium-size brown dog who lives outside and has been here since September, when I moved here. I guess this is why she stays nearby. She is about 30 pounds, brown and non-descript, but always greets me when I come or go. I don’t encourage her by giving her food, but she doesn’t stop trying to communicate with me. I am afraid to make friends with her because some people here mistreat dogs—I don’t want her to think it is okay to be friendly to humans.

It is winter and she has been sleeping on cold, wet ground now for several weeks. The days are still sunny, but it will get cold and dark for a couple of months. I don’t know what to do for her. There are no shelters here. Every so often at night, I hear her yiping in fear. I can’t see out my windows to figure out what is going on.

Our city is unusual, because we have a veterinarian who will treat pets. One Peace Corps Volunteer a couple of years ago actually found a dog while here, took care of him for over a year and ended up taking the dog home with him. All he needed was a veterinarian’s certificate of health and his dog went home with him on the plane.

That makes me think of the story about a beachcomber who comes upon thousands of starfish that had been beached by a tide. They would die if they stayed on the beach long. She was walking along the beach, picking some up and tossing them back into the surf. Someone saw what she was doing and asked her what impact she could have because she couldn’t begin to toss them all back. The beachcomber nodded at the starfish in her hand and said “What I am doing is everything to THIS starfish.”

There is only one starfish outside my door. But I don’t know what to do about her.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

$100 Loan?

Here is a story written by an Azerbaijani woman who received a loan from my micro-credit organization.

“My name is XXXXX and I am from XXXX (a small village). I am married with three children and have been a client for four cycles (two years). Before I owned my business, the only source of income for our family was the small household in the village (her husband is apparently unemployed, which is common. She means that the household is surrounded by a small amount of land and that they can grow vegetables and fruit trees and raise a few animals for food). Despite the fact that I started my own business, our family’s financial and living position did not improve. Also, my business was not growing because there was no financial institution to support small businesses like ours.

Our group began (loans are made to groups, who choose their own members. The group is responsible for paying back the loans if one of the members doesn’t pay. This is because there is usually no collateral) when a group of women was talking about micro-credit loans. According to what they said, loans from this organization had caused a lot of changes in their acquaintances' lives. We agreed that we would apply to change our lives as well.

So, our group of women received our first loan. Possibly this was one of the happiest days for each member of the group. As women, we were given a chance to change our lives independently. Now our trade is recognized and well-known all around and we feel respected and surrounded by support. This experience has helped others to have confidence in us, which we intend to justify. Because of these loans, the turnover of my inventory has become constant. Formerly my business was almost going down due to a lack of financial resources. Sometimes I had to use some portion of cash on hand for solving financial problems in my family, then restart everything from the beginning. But later, thanks to these loans, I could purchase more goods of high quality and get more income.

I used the loans efficiently for improving my business. The loans absolutely changed the lives of my family members and me. I increased my working capital, and even at the cost of the income obtained from the business, I expanded my household in the village, organized a wedding for my son and most important, resolved my domestic problems. (Hmm, not sure what she did with the husband :-) ). The loans also caused a change in my thoughts regarding my business; in the future my goal is to extend it again and increase the number of my business premises (she means she wants to add another store) in the trade center.

I have a great and everlasting gratitude and respect in my heart towards this organization. I am just one of their clients, but I know that they have a lot of other clients whose paths in life were brightened up and their trust in the future was encouraged thanks to this organization.”

It is very gratifying for me to work with this organization. Besides helping people who are very poor, the organization provides good jobs with benefits to its employees. These employees are not poor and are able to provide well for their families.

Loans start at $100 and go up to about $5,000. They are usually for six months, but can be renewed. The repayment rate is well over 99 percent, an eye-popping figure for a former American banker like me.

The company was started in 1984 by someone who had been a Peace Corps volunteer, then spent 15 or so years in organizations trying to help the poor before he started his own organization. It now operates in 21 countries. Out of over 500 employees in Azerbaijan, I am the only American, but there are a few people from other countries.

One fact that can be hard to get over is that interest rates are usually around 35 percent. This can sound shocking and exploitive to the uninitiated, but it makes sense when you understand the alternatives and the cost of putting small loans on the books.

For example, if someone borrows $100, they would pay $18 in interest for 6 months. Our organization has an office, many employees, computers, heat and lighting to pay for and we advertise. With the $100, the borrower can buy some goods from a wholesaler or buy some livestock, sell the goods for possibly $170 and make a profit to buy more goods.

Before micro-credit organizations, the only way to get a loan was through what we call a loan shark. And many people went without credit. Before for-credit organizations dominated, charity organizations were tried. Many of these organizations failed because the clients did not see the loan as an obligation, but as charity, and did not pay them back.

Many foreigners in Azerbaijan lament the status of women here and wonder how things can change. I feel that preaching, arguing and becoming outraged did not work in America and will not work in Azerbaijan. What works is having tools available so that some women can take advantage of them. Some will, most won’t. The women that do take advantage and succeed will change things for all women eventually.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Household and Beauty Tips from Azerbaijan

Living in Azerbaijan, I have noticed a few things that Azerbaijanis swear by or that they don’t question, but are tips that work for them and maybe for you, too.

For women--wash hair about once a week. I never thought I would agree with this practice, but I can see that it works for Azerbaijani women. Their hair is glossy and does not smell. In America, I washed my hair every day. Now, I am down to washing it once every four days and have noticed it has more natural oil, but is not greasy.

Help for dry winter skin—no central heat, no problem. Turns out the high temperatures in low humidity is what causes the dry skin.

Cut down on laundry by wearing “house clothes”. When you are at home, wear your sweats-type clothing, but never anything that you would wear outside. This lets you wear your street clothes longer without washing them.

If it’s not cold enough to turn on the heat, but you want a little warmth, turn on the gas burners in the kitchen. Have the whole family sit in the kitchen and then go to bed in your cold bedroom with your skin that doesn’t need moisturizer.

Tolerate poultry. I have read that Clayton, Missouri is roiled by a debate about chickens in suburban backyards. Some residents want them, some don’t. Here no one minds. They do make noise, but people are used to it and tune it out. The fresh eggs and antics of chickens are worth it. For some reason, the dogs and cats leave the chickens alone.

Tolerate clotheslines. Most communities in the US prohibit the hanging of laundry outside. About 6 percent of US energy consumption is said to be for drying clothes. I would have agreed with the “no clothesline” rules before I came here. No more--I love the way the clothes smell and think that a dryer is hard on clothes. Of course, in the winter, clothes can take a couple of days to dry and still might be clammy.

You can get a lot of dirt out of rugs by using a stiff broom on them. In the good weather, just take them outside and beat them (after you hang them on your newly-installed clothesline).. A couple of times a year, after you sweep and beat them, let a cold hose run on them for awhile, then put them in the sun for a day or two to dry.

Instead of washing blankets and quilts so much, just hang them on a clothesline on a windy day. Some of the dirt blows off and they smell great.

Instead of using bleach on your white cotton and linen things, just hang them on the clothesline in the summer and they will bleach right out.

Azerbaijanis rarely throw out glass jars, such as ones that pickles or mayonnaise come in. They use them for storing pasta, rice, beans, cereal—any food that Americans keep in a box or bag. They think this is more sanitary.

I thought that cockroaches were some super-pest that was everywhere. I heard they survived when the dinosaurs became extinct. But I haven’t seen or heard of any here.

Shave your baby daughter’s head and her hair will be thicker. It is not unusual for a girl to have her head shaved every summer from babyhood through about age 4. The little girls look really cute when their hair starts to grow out and it is very cool for them in the summer. Azerbaijanis believe that this is why their girls have such thick, pretty hair.

Make sure you have a few fruit or nut trees in your yard. It is common for Azerbaijanis to harvest mulberries, pears, apples, plums and grapes, all from their own yards. They don’t prune or fertilize and get plenty of yield.

Refrigeration is overrated. People leave food out all night in pots on the stove and then have leftovers the next day. No one gets sick.

Azerbaijanis mostly can’t afford cleaning solutions like Pine-Sol and Mr. Clean. They use vinegar and water, which is strong, antibacterial and better for the environment.

Use metal dishes in the microwave. A few families are beginning to buy microwaves. We have one at work now. People put metal dishes in it every day with no problem. They throw a fit when I put my Rubbermaid container in there. They think it will melt.

No shoes inside. No bare feet either. Each person has two pairs of slippers for inside. One is plastic and for use in places there might be water. The other is cloth for other parts of the house. This method keeps everything cleaner.

Be suspicious of any food that comes from far away. Azerbaijanis feel it may not be fresh or may have unhealthy ingredients. We get quite a bit of nuts, beans and dried fruit from Iran, our neighbor, but not much from other places.

Cut down on laundry and paper towels by not drying your hands after you wash them. It feels really strange at first, but your hands will air dry. Some Azerbaijanis feel that using a communal hand towel is just not sanitary—that air drying is better.

After you wash the dishes, you must go to the bathroom and wash your hands. I don’t know why, but if I don’t, people are offended.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Midgets and Mongolia

In my city, the Peace Corps volunteers are mostly older people. I think this is mostly because many of the young people teach English in schools or work with youth. In our city, we have no English teaching Peace Corps volunteers and more businesses in which those with business experience volunteer.

So when I traveled around Azerbaijan this summer and spent time with more young volunteers, I had a bit of culture shock. I already knew that I am the least traveled of my group of 60 volunteers. Most have been all over the world, even the young ones. Before coming to Azerbaijan, I had been in two foreign countries—Mexico and Canada. As I met some of the volunteers who have been here for two years and got reacquainted with my group, I kept hearing things like—

* When I backpacked through Mongolia
* When I lived in Prague
* You need to avoid the (blank) food in Cambodia, but it’s okay in Laos
* My relative and her husband (he is 90) went to Antarctica last year
* When I get out of the Peace Corps, I am going to bike from Alaska to South America

I started to understand that the adventure demographic is very prevalent in the Peace Corps. One of my fellow volunteers told me after it was clear that I had adjusted to the Peace Corps that he earlier had a bet going that I would be the first dropout out in training. He thought I would not adjust after having traveled so little. Others appear startled by my lack of travel experiences.

But when I was in another region of Azerbaijan this summer, with a crazy taxi driver and three other volunteers, I realized that I may be the only plain vanilla person that I know here.

We were in a very hot region and were helping a volunteer by working for a week at her children’s camp. She felt that there was not enough for kids to do in the summer in her region, so she had planned a camp from 10-2 each day for four weeks. After camp, we decided to go to up to a nearby mountain town to cool off—a volunteer who lives there was going to meet us and we planned to hike.

We told the taxi driver we wanted to look at the scenery on the way up, but apparently he never heard of the leisurely landscape tour. He took off tearing around the mountain roads. While we were careening up the slopes, the others talked about their travel experiences, while I periodically interceded with the taxi driver to slow down.

During the ride, I heard about all of the interesting and (to me) exotic places these young people had worked, lived and traveled. When it came to my turn, the taxi driver suddenly pulled over and we noticed that a group of people were peering carefully over the edge of a cliff.

He hustled over, had a brief conversation and came back to tell us that a BMW had gone over the side and 3 people were dead. (There are normally no guard rails, but I have seen a makeshift—looking guard rail along some roads. It is a pipe about two feet off the ground that looks pretty flimsy. I commented one time about it with a companion and found that these are gas lines running to the country. So I guess as you would begin plunging off an embankment, your vehicle would possibly blow up on the way down) I thought this tragedy would make him slow down, but it appeared to energize him even more.

I mumbled my story of having visited Mexico and Canada, while everyone soberly contemplated this pathetic travel history. They then asked me about my job. I am afraid that they also thought that 32 years in banking did not sound too interesting either. This is when one of the young women told me about her unconventional life.

Her parents were circus performers and her grandparents founded the circus after meeting a large troupe of talented midgets (little people, I discovered, is the current correct term) in Europe. The midgets even helped raise her and sometimes walked her to school. She is a very talented, creative young woman who began doing the administrative work of the circus when she was about 13.

This volunteer and half of the volunteers in Azerbaijan recently left, having finished their 27 month commitment. Some will attend grad school or have other education plans, a few will go back to their previous jobs, a few are retired, a couple have found jobs in Baku (our capital city) some want to travel to different places, but most will look for a job in the US.

I wonder what it is like to have a conventional job after the excitement of their lives so far. Maybe they won’t have conventional jobs. The founder of the organization that I volunteer for in Azerbaijan joined the Peace Corps in 1962 and founded this micro-credit organization in 1984. It is now in 21 countries and has served over 1 million families.

I don’t have the same desire to travel the world and sightsee. This experience has changed me so that when I visit a country, I want to be more than a tourist., I also would like to visit more places in the United States. That alone could keep me busy for a long time.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Shock Over Teatime

I go guesting frequently. This means that people I know--relatives of my host family, co-workers, people I meet in my town--invite me to their homes for tea or a meal. At least twice when I was in the company of women, I thought that women were asking me how many abortions I have had. I didn't know the Azerbaijani word for it, but it turns out it is the same as the American word.

Thinking that they surely couldn't be asking me this question, I asked them a question, and the conversation got back on track. Azerbaijani culture allows nosy questions, even to people one has just met. So I am frequently asked how old I am, how much money I made in the US, how much money I have in the bank and why my children are not married.

Then one day, the news came on in my home and it was about Barack Obama giving a graduation speech at Notre Dame. It was news that some Americans have an objection to abortions. My host mother, who has two children and teaches first grade, asked me about this, telling me that she has had several abortions. She asked me how many I have had and asked me why some Americans object to them.

I told her that Americans usually don't discuss any abortions they may have had and explained that most people feel that abortion should be legal but that it is something that should be avoided if possible by using contraception.

She agreed with me that in an ideal world, abortions would be rare, but said that Azerbaijani women have no choice because abortions are cheap and easily obtained, but the government does not supply contraceptives. I asked about condoms and she told me that men won't wear them. During our training, the Peace Corps doctors had mentioned to us in training that it is not unusual for women have 10 or more abortions, but we were absorbing so much at the time, that I put that fact out of my mind.

I was shocked and usually my way of dealing with shock is to do research. I found a study that an American university had done which confirmed that very few Azerbaijanis use contraception because it is not available, they don't know what it is or how to use it, it is too expensive or because most men won't wear condoms.

I should interject here that I am talking about married women. The lifestyle of a single woman outside of Baku does not normally include dating or going anywhere alone with a man, so pregnancy in a single woman does not normally happen. The average woman has had 3.5 abortions--since some are not married or are young enough to have future abortions, presumably over their lifetimes, married women average more than 3.5 apiece.

A book I consulted on the dissolution of the Soviet Union declares that abortions were legal and free in USSR countries beginning in 1920, but have risen since the collapse of the Soviet Union due to the disappearance of state-subsidized day care, the collapse of the state welfare system, and the deterioration of health care services.

One of my Peace Corps friends here told me that her host mother, who has two teen daughters and whose husband has a professional job, has had 4 abortions in the 18 months she has lived with that family. Others I talked to said Azerbaijani women tend to be very matter-of-fact about abortion--women feel there is no choice because they can't afford to raise more children. Most Azerbaijanis have 1 or 2 children--people who live in the country may have more.

I completely support a woman's right to choose, but find this practice disturbing, mostly because of the fact that men apparently would rather have their wives have repeated surgery than use contraception themselves. And also that women would be so passive in the face of this problem that to us is easily prevented.

I recently traveled to Georgia, which is similar to Azerbaijan--a post-Soviet Caucuses country next to Azerbaijan. I asked some young women about contraception there and they said it is available to all and that Georgians frown on abortion.

A few days later, after I had recovered somewhat from the shock, I began to think of what topics shock Azerbaijanis about Americans. I could identify several--the existence of the death penalty (many Azerbaijanis feel that the government should not have the right to kill people), the high number of teen pregnancies (unthinkable to have an unmarried teen girl pregnant here), the status of women (feeling sorry for women who have no husband or children or who are divorced) and the idea of people walking around with guns. All of these things frighten and shock many Azeris as much as our learning about a tradition of abortions.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Duh II

About 6 months ago I wrote about how difficult it is for me to learn the Azerbaijani language. I studied 2-3 hours a day, took lessons twice a week for 2 hours, lived with an Azerbaijani family who didn’t speak English and worked at a place in which few people spoke English.

Things are still the same, but I have been getting better. I recently took an informal test and my language rating is called “intermediate high.” I started at “intermediate low” after 6 weeks, after 11 weeks tested at the same level and after six months tested at “intermediate mid”. My progress seems so slow to me.

I still don’t understand much of what is said to me. But in traveling, buying things and communication with my host family, I can say what I want. When they have their family discussions, I usually have little idea of what they are saying. The TV news is usually unintelligible too as is most business discussion. I am typical of most of the other volunteers.

Listening to someone speak is like solving a word puzzle. For example if someone says

My blue sweater is in the kitchen

the order of the words in Azerbaijani is Blue sweater mine kitchen in is.

If they are speaking quickly and I don't know some of the words (in a more difficult sentence), I might retain only-- Blue Sweater Kitchen---before they barrel on to the next sentence.

With a few more sentences of partially heard words, I would have trouble figuring out what is being said. There are still many misunderstandings. My vocabulary is much increased, but there are many words I don't know.

I am doing a lot of professional training at my assigned organization--Time Management, Conflict Management, Supervisory Training, Company History and Culture. I require a translator for much of the training and someone to help me understand all of the comments in the discussions.

What strikes me though, is that since I have been in the country for a year with hundreds of hours of language lessons, live with a host family and work with non-English speakers, Azerbaijanis could express frustration with my relative lack of skill. But most don't. People are extremely kinds and supportive.

I think of immigrants to America who speak with an accent or people who work long hours every day and have no time or money to learn English. They may have no access to the level of instruction or exposure to native speakers that I do. Some Americans tend to be very critical of these people. At this point, that attitude makes me cringe. I wish that Americans wouldn't say "Why can't he speak English? If he lives here, he should learn!." It's just not that easy. It seems to me that it has always been that the first generation of immigrants usually doesn't learn English, the second generation knows both languages and the third generation usually just knows English.

My great-grandparents came from Germany as young adults, never learned English or wanted to. They needed work and settled in a German neighborhood, cooked German food, and worked at jobs at which they could speak German. My grandmother and her six brothers and sisters learned English easily, but not from their parents.

One problem that immigrant Americans don’t have is that many nouns that Azerbaijanis use are Russian. Sometimes, I hear a word being used, look it up, and find it isn’t in the dictionary. I find out that the Azerbaijani word is not popular, just the Russian word. Azerbaijani is similar to Turkish, as Spanish is to Portuguese. So when I get back to the US, to put the knowledge to good use, I would like to take Turkish lessons.

Besides their extremely patient attitude toward learning their language, the other thing that I admire about Azerbaijanis is their facility with languages. Most can speak Russian many know Turkish and dialects are common in many areas. Since few books are published in Azerbaijani, speaking another language is important in having access to the world of information.

When Azerbaijanis learn English, they don’t seem to have nearly as much trouble learning it as we do in trying to learn Azerbaijani. The same effort with them seems to yield better results.

Meantime, I have stopped feeling guilty if I watch an occasional American DVD or read a book in English. I will continue to study, speak, and work and see what happens.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

What I Don't Miss in America

I miss a lot of things. Before I came here, I didn’t have a strong desire to sightsee all over America. But now I have a desire to see many things I haven’t—like LA, the Grand Canyon, the Pacific Coast around Oregon, Williamsburg, New Mexico and spend more time in San Francisco, New York, the Florida Keys and Colorado. I also miss milk shakes—here and in Georgia a milk shake is milk with ice and sugar.

But there are many things I don’t miss.

Most American Food

The fruits, vegetables, fresh yogurt and milk, freshly baked bread and cheese made on site are wonderful. Also, the cooking style is great—soups made daily, great mixtures of cooked vegetables and fresh salads and plates of fresh fruit for dessert. The baked goods are also delicious.

In February and March, there is little fruit and fresh vegetables are limited to root vegetables and herbs, but I can deal with that.

Driving and Having a Car

I don’t need one here. I can walk most places and there are always buses for short distances and trains if I need to go a long distance. I don’t miss the expense of a car, cleaning it, buying gas and insurance and wondering when it will break or need expensive repairs.

Paying for and Taking Care of a House

I’m like a kid again—mom and dad take care of paying the bills, fixing stuff and providing heat and meals. I give my host family a set amount every month and I live there, am served food and only have to buy fruit for myself. If something needs fixing, frankly it might not get fixed, but again, it is not my problem.

The Media

I didn’t have a TV for the last few years I lived in the US. I kept up on current events and still do by reading. If I wanted to watch a movie, I got it on Netflix and watched it on my computer. But I still heard a lot of people talking about TV shows like American Idol, The Bachelor and other shows I never watched. I don’t miss this.

Also, advertising is not as aggressive and pervasive and events and buildings are not normally sponsored by any company. No one send mail or email asking for charitable contributions and no one asks you to buy candy for their kid’s school. If there is no playground and the school windows are broken, parents don’t raise their own money.

The Split

In Azerbaijan, there is not a huge cultural split with people on both sides angry with each other. They depend on the government, or want to depend on the government, to get things done. The president appoints the mayors of the cities, has control of the Supreme Court and appoints other legislators so citizen involvement is not as necessary--once the president is elected, that takes care of a lot of things. No one is deckaring on the radio about how they hope the President fails, because it is illegal to criticize the President.

This sounds alarming to Americans, but in practice, it makes for very little rancor. I am not endorsing it, but people are not constantly angry about issues like guns, gays and God. It is difficult to explain how appealing it is to me, an outsider. not to be surrounded by partisan anger every day.

I have heard that Americans living abroad sometimes read the news and are surprised and bewildered at something going on in their country. They find that you have to be there to understand it.

Right now, I want to know why everyone seems to be so upset about the death of Michael Jackson. I thought he was being shunned because he was a child molester. Also, when I left last September, Michelle Obama had a low approval rating. Now she seems to be popular and people are excited about her clothes. So what has changed?

Also, I am really puzzled about why Republicans don’t love the mandatory health insurance proposal. They are supposedly for personal responsibility and everyone paying their own way. They love mandatory auto insurance, so why would it be okay for people to have no health insurance and show up at the hospital for free treatment?

I am not sure if I will work when I get back to the US. However, I have a medical condition that precludes me from buying insurance from a commercial insurance company—they won’t sell me a policy. I know others with the same issue. So why is it not okay with some Americans for me not to have an option to buy health insurance? Without that option, I would have to work to get employer paid medical insurance at a job that I would take away from someone who needs one or go without health insurance. I guess you have to be in America to understand these things.

Doing Paperwork

I don’t make enough money to file taxes, get no mail except boxes from home with cool stuff in them and don’t have to fill out expense reports, applications for anything or figure out my bank statements.

Unrelated Question

A few people in my town have a question for Americans. Maybe you can help me answer it. Husbands and wives in America sometimes say that they don't let their spouse do something--for example--they won't let their husband go to a football game on Thanksgiving or let him work part-time. Or a husband won't let his wife go to Las Vegas with her girlfriends.

In your circle of family and friends, what types of things won't they let their spouses do? You can email to me or comment on the blog. Thanks!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I Love Ladas

Before I came to Azerbaijan, I had heard of the Lada automobile, but thought it was a joke. I knew that it was made in Russia, along with the Volga and thought it was purchased mostly because there were only 2 brands in the USSR and other types of cars were not generally available. I thought it was of poor quality and wouldn't perform well.

This is yet another area in which I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Ladas are everywhere here, along with SUV's, Mercedes, BMW's, Japanese and Korean cars. I have a real respect for them now because I have seen the difficult situations in which they perform well. Ladas are small, economy cars with simple, widely available parts. Many people can fix Ladas themselves without expensive special equipment.

Many of the roads in the country and some even in the city are in bad condition, made of dirt or gravel and are very uneven. Taxis are ubiquitous because many people don't have cars and need to carry heavy loads from the bazaar or other places where public transportation won't work. These cars can go places only an SUV should go and do a great job at it.

It is common in the summer to see Ladas completely full of watermelons, including the front passenger seat, back seat to the ceiling, an open trunk and full roof carrier, proceeding normally down a street.

I did a little reading about them and found they are built tough because they need to survive winters in Siberia and rough terrain everywhere. They are sold on every continent except North America and are even used in Antarctica. Cars with 300,000 miles are not unusual.

I was pretty attached to my Toyota Corolla, but will look around Craigslist when I get back for a Lada!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Movies and T-Shirts

One of the ways that walking around a town or city is interesting is because there is apparently no thought given to copyrights or protecting brands. For example, my host sister, a very conservative girl, walks around with a t-shirt that says “Columbia University” with the logo discreetly placed at the bottom of the shirt. In giant letters across the top, it says COCAINE.

I bought my pillow at a shop called Angelina, with a huge picture of Angelina Jolie in the window. A guy who looks exactly like Michael Jordan is on a bank billboard in my town. Last week I saw a green vinyl purse in a store window. It sported a label that said “Jimmy Choo”. There are also shoes that say “Ann Klayn.”

Then there are the mistakes. I have seen a t-shirt with a picture of a football—it said “NBA Basketball”. Volunteers also see a lot of writing on clothes that is misspelled, so our theory is that if the clothing factory makes a spelling mistake, they send the clothes to Azerbaijan.

Peace Corps volunteers swear that there is no way to buy legal DVD’s here. We get American movies before they are out in US. There are disadvantages, however.
The English soundtrack is not removed, just recorded over in Azeri in a louder voice. There are English subtitles available, but the whole movie is one scene, so going back and forth is difficult. There is no bonus material.

I think it would be difficult to solve the movie problem because Hollywood is probably not interested in producing movies for a language spoken by 8 million people, many of whom can speak Russian. It does affect artists in Azerbaijan, however. There is no point in making a CD if it will be copied and sold.

But Azeris probably spend more time watching their own party videos than watching movies. Videographers are ubiquitous at family events—not just weddings, but birthdays, graduation parties, going into-the-army-parties and getting circumcised parties. The latter are unnerving. Boys are circumcised at between 3 and 12 years of age. The videos show the preparation, much of it very entertaining with decorating, the band setting up, then the dancing and eating. But also on the film is the lamb being slaughtered as a gift to the poor and the actual circumcision, which shocked me all the more because I didn’t know they would do it on the video.

When a new party video comes out, copies are distributed to eager attendees and they take it home and play it over for their family and guests. It is a great time to find out who everyone is, what they wore, how they acted and how they danced.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


This summer I have traveled to other regions of Azerbaijan and also left the country to go to Tbilisi, Georgia. The travel choices are not big here--Iran is to the south, the Caspian Sea to the east, to the west Armenia (Azerbaijan and Armenia are bitter enemies and it is not possible to travel there). To the north is Georgia and a little piece of Russia.

So 12 Peace Corps volunteers set out for Tbilisi last month. It is about an hour and a half to the border, which is in a barren-looking area. It took us a half hour to go through the Azeri and Georgian guard stations and then about an hour to get to Tbilisi.

Georgia was one of the 15 former Soviet Union countries, like Azerbaijan, but the atmosphere is different.

Some of the first things we saw were a nice cityscape--interesting, European style buildings and a lively street scene with bars, outdoor cafes, street art, fashionably dressed people and dogs with owners (as opposed to homeless dogs). People are out at night, and since the biggest export in Georgia is wine, people were drinking it.

We arranged to meet some young people who had come to our town for an exchange project and got a personal tour of the city of a period of a few days. It was great to take a real vacation. We had a great time visiting old ruins and interesting buildings, climbing to the top of the city for a great view, hanging out in the cafes and other sightseeing.

Apparently the Georgians don't like their president, blaming him for the war with the Russians last summer and they were having daily protests in the central square. Some people from the regions had been camping out in little booths, voicing their displeasure.

Like Azerbaijan, outside of the capital city, many people are very poor and unlike Azerbaijan, some go without food because it isn't as easy to grow food in Georgia as it is in Azerbaijan. Also like Azerbaijan, the older people who remember the Soviet Union days tend to look upon it as a golden period when everyone was middle class, had a job and some financial security. Now, reportedly a few people are rich and most are very poor.

Our trip to Georgia helped us learn more about Azerbaijan--we had thought that some of the traditions in Azerbaijan, such as no dating, marriages that are usually arranged by the families and limited opportunities for women were related to Muslim culture. However, Georgians are Christian and have these same traditions. Georgians seem to attend church in larger numbers, but in Azerbaijan people will say they are Muslim, but rarely go to mosque and few do the five times daily prayers or observe Ramadan.

This is only the fourth country I have visited in the world, but in my opinion, people who have been to all of the popular countries could have a good trip in Georgia. Besides the capital city, there are the Upper Caucusus (mountains) to hike, interesting and beautiful countryside villages to visit and Black Sea resorts, which are very popular in the summer. The Georgian people are very welcoming and friendly.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Crooks and Michael Jackson

One of the really endearing things about Azerbaijan is how trusting people are with valuables.

For example, on the buses, the driver is busy driving. So a passenger--any passenger who happens to be sitting in the jump seat near the driver collects the fares, puts them in a cardboard box left there for that purpose and gives change. When that person gets off, someone else comes up and fills in.

Also on the buses, women sitting with standing women in front of them typically take the purse out of the standing woman's hand and balance it on their laps.

I was at a concert in another large city last fall. At intermission time, everyone headed out to the lobby for refreshments. I noticed that the woman next to me had left her purse on the seat. I was alarmed and ready to grab the purse and find her when I noticed that many other women had done the same thing.

More than a decade ago, the alphabet was changed from Cyrillic to Roman. In other words, it looked sort of Russian before and now the letters look mostly like our alphabet. As a result, the pensioners going the ATM's to get their monthly allotment can't read the new alphabet and don't know how to work the ATM.

So they give their card to strangers (like me), along with their PINs and have the stranger get their monthly allotment out of the ATM for them. I have heard of no old person getting ripped off or even being warned not to do this.


I have lost count of the number of times people have stopped me to offer me their condolences on the death of Michael Jackson. I did not suspect when I came here that anyone would know who he is. The music is different here, they are not down with androgyny and take a very dim view of anyone accused of molesting children. But he was a very big star here among all generations.

In Tibilisi, Georgia, there were large billboards mourning his death and offering condolences to Americans. I don't know what to say, so I mostly say "thank you."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Hot Weather

All over America gardeners fuss with their roses, adding things to the soil, spraying them for bugs and pruning them. Here in Azerbaijan, the roses are absolutely gorgeous, climb all over buildings and look super-healthy with a lot more flowers per plant than in US.

Yet the soil is supposedly poor here and the roses mostly grow wild, with no one watering, spraying or fertilizing them.


In Azerbaijan, most living rooms, which are called “guest rooms” here, have an elaborate chandelier, with sockets for many bulbs. One of the first things the volunteers noticed when we arrived is that many times there is only one bulb in the sockets, sometimes two and if the family is really extravagant, three bulbs. Electricity is considered to be expensive, little reading is done and no one seems to mind.

It is the end of June as I write this and today is the first day the air conditioning has been turned on in my office. It is a little warmer here than in St. Louis, so it is a welcome blast of air. We do have windows that open and I am in an old brick building that is naturally more cool than a wooden building. The vast majority of homes have no air conditioning, but most have at least one fan. My family has told me that fans are unhealthy (not an unusual attitude here) so they don't use one. I can buy one for my room if I want to.

Just as in Azeri homes, there is a marked lack of clutter in Azeri offices. People don’t have files in their desks (except for me), so there is no need for a file drawer ( I have a cardboard box under my drawerless desk which holds my files. ) The company’s records are kept in some binders in a bookcase.

Customers in my micro-finance institution have one file each, which is not actually in a traditional manila folder. I have not seen any of those here. There are about 7 phones for 40 or so people, but many have personal cell phones. If you want to make a call on one of the 7 phones you call the operator, who places it for you.

At work, we have a bathroom in our courtyard and also a kitchen, featuring a sink, 2 hotplates and some water. No refrigerator. All of the US office wars about who keeps what nasty food for weeks in the fridge are not a problem here. And I have not seen an ice cube tray or ice cubes here. Cold water is thought to be unhealthy. Ice cream is sold only in hot weather, as it is thought that eating ice cream in cool or cold weather will make a person sick.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

American dirt vs. Azerbaijani dirt

Cleanliness—We have totally different views about cleanliness, tidiness and food safety. For example, Azeris never wear shoes in the house, but never go barefoot either. They wear fuzzy slippers. Even in the shower, they wear flip-flops.

However, they wear the same clothes, sometimes all week. My host mother does laundry every 2-3 weeks, and the family has very few clothes.

People have beautiful glossy hair that does not smell, but they wash their hair about once a week and shower about the same frequency. However, an hour-long shower is not considered unusual. This winter a relative came and took a 2 ½ shower and my family did not seem concerned.

Since Azeris have very few possessions, their homes have little clutter. I have about 30 books in my room, most of them upright in a bookcase, but this is considered messiness. Also, nothing is ever put on the floor—purses, briefcases, baskets—nothing-- because the floor is dirty. Actually the floor is not really dirty because the wood is cleaned frequently and they are covered with area rugs that are beaten outside regularly. Also dogs and cats are almost never in the house because they are dirty and dogs napping on furniture would be unthinkable.

Hot water heaters are turned on once a day or less, so in many families dishes are done once a day. Dirty dishes clutter the house waiting for dish time. Also, food cooked on the stove is often left there covered overnight and eaten the next day. All of those people in America who freak out when mayonnaise salads are left out for a couple of hours can relax—food with mayonnaise is commonly left out here 5-10 hours on a hot day without a thought and people don't seem to get sick more often.

Luckily I cook and eat my own food, so I don’t have to eat this stuff and not eating meat is helpful to say also. Usually guests are served just-cooked food. I have only gotten sick once since I have been here and it was from food I made myself (my family will totally understand this statement).

One day I came home and was surprised and annoyed to find the refrigerator unplugged and the food warm. I had eggs and cheese in it, along with some vegetables. When I asked my host mother what was the problem, she said that since there was so little in it, she did not see the point of paying the electric bill and would turn it on again when she went to the bazaar.

One day at work I got a small run in my hose—the hose were almost the color of my skin, so I did not leave and buy new hose. All day, women took me aside and explained with a horrified look that they had discovered a run. Now I keep extra hose in my purse.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Minor Culture Shock

The Peace Corps tells us that we will experience culture shock coming to our country and culture shock again when we go home. Part of the shock is getting used to a new environment and customs, part of it is the different way that people see the world and part of it is dealing with the “national personality”.

I realize that I will not be the same when I go home. For example, I now feel that the American way of providing food is not a good one. The average food item in a US grocery store comes from over 2000 miles away. It may be several weeks or months old. This is expensive, not sustainable, the food is not fresh, not good for the environment and probably has a lot of nasty stuff sprayed on it.

The food I am eating now comes from nearby and is beautiful. I eat things that grow this time of year in Azerbaijan. So now it is lots of cherries, apricots, beans, spinach, garlic, fresh herbs, new potatoes and berries. If it is not in season, we don’t eat it because we can’t get it. Very little pesticide is used and the fruits and vegetables are beautiful and tasty.

Luckily, Azerbaijan has more climate zones than any other country and in winter there are many citrus fruits and a lot of apples as well as all kinds of root vegetables and delicious dried apricots, figs and dates. Freshly baked bread is sold on almost every corner. People know where their eggs are from because they probably buy them from a neighbor or get them from their own chickens, which even in the city are everywhere. The yogurt is out of this world. Kind of like the difference between cardboard and a home-made ravioli.

Some of the culture shock comes from realizing things about your own country that you may not realize until you leave it. For example, after being here, I realize there are a lot of great places in the US that I haven’t seen, so I want to see a lot of different sights in the US when I get back. Another example follows, but first I need to say that there aren’t a lot of old sites, buildings or artifacts to see in Azerbaijan because they have been destroyed over and over again by invading armies. Throughout history, if a city or tribe resisted an invader, their city was burned or otherwise destroyed.

Azerbaijan history seems to be one invasion after another with different tribes taking over one after the other. During WWII, unbeknownst to most Americans, one of 6 Azeris died.

Whenever Azerbaijan has been involved in a war, it has taken place on its own soil and in a country of 8 million people and in which all men must serve in the military, war is a very serious problem. In the past 25 years, war has resulted in part of the country being occupied by Armenia, including about a million initially homeless refugees (who currently live in parts of schools and buildings set aside for them by the government) and people with awful tales to tell of villages being burned and residents, including children, being shot, burned and stabbed to death.

My moment of culture shock came when my host mother asked me why US parents don’t seem to care about their children going off to war and being killed and injured and about the devastation of a long war, such as the Iraq and Afghan wars.

I thought about it for awhile and did some quick math. Then I told her that since the Civil War, we have not had a war on our soil. We always have been involved only in wars in other people’s countries. Also, we have so many people in our country, that if only 1.5 percent serve in the military, we have enough people to fight two wars. So it is not a big decision to go to war for us. The great majority of us would not fight in a war and if we had to, we wouldn’t want the war anymore. The same goes for paying for wars. If we had to vote to raise our taxes to have a war, we probably wouldn’t want the war either.

We know our land will not be a battleground and most of us don’t know anyone who has been killed or injured or whose town or large area of their country has been destroyed. So if we are angry enough or if our leaders tell us we should go to war, we usually do and for most of us life goes on. We don’t really understand what it is like for the country we are invading. The part that I didn’t say, but thought, is that many of us think that if we don’t feel safe, it is okay to destroy another country..

We are not here to get involved in politics or in controversial topics. However, in answering questions, sometimes it is very difficult to avoid any controversy. If we don’t give our opinion, we look like we are being censored. We do say that Americans have different opinions and our opinion is just one person’s opinion. Azeris are always surprised when they find out so few people join the military and how big our country is and so was my host mother. Many Azeris discover from living with us that everything seems easy to us—travel, buying expensive things, saying and doing what we want and being able to start wars while knowing that the battleground will not be anywhere near us. She told me that she felt that if Americans know so little as to think the fall of the Soviet Union was welcomed by most people in the Soviet block countries, that we are not in a position to make the decision to go to war anywhere but in our own country.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Me and My Shepherd Friend

Nothing to Do

One of the things that an American notices right away in Azerbaijan is how little there is to do at home. Most Peace Corps Volunteers have not seen radios, children’s board games, books that are not textbooks, video games or adult games like playing cards. We have seen backgammon and dominos.

Children go to school in the morning and are home for lunch and then typically stay at home the rest of the day. They have friends at school but rarely go to each other’s homes. Most children don’t have chores or pets to play with. There are some crayons and coloring books, but no paper for art projects, paints or anything messy. Children are not ordinarily read to—and I have never seen a child reading a book and most homes have only textbooks and a copy of the Koran.

A lot of the time children do nothing. While a child in US with nothing to do might crawl under the dining table, make a tent out of a sheet, play with pots and pans on the kitchen floor or go outside and run around, Azeri children seem content to sit with nothing to do or watch adult TV shows (I haven’t seen any for children, but my families have not had satellite TV as some Azeris do). As many Azeris have one child, many don’t even have playmates at home and kids don’t normally come over to play (maybe because there is nothing to play with?) so kids spend a lot of time alone. In the summer,some kids who live in apartment buildings go outside and play on the asphalt, but in houses, they tend to stay inside their own locked gates.

Teen life would seem very bleak to an American. Playing sports is rare and electronic devices of any kind except cell phones are not common. Some teens have cell phones with music on them, but talk little on the phones since every call costs money. They do like to listen to music, which is on a TV channel, not a radio, and music videos are popular. Some boys go to internet cafes to play video games, which costs about 45 cents an hour. There is no dating in Azerbaijan and teens who are under 18 rarely go anywhere with their friends. Teens don’t usually have friends over, either, unless a group of cousins get together with the rest of the family.

Most homes are small and don’t have yards, so there is little housework. Most women cook quick meals from scratch, do laundry anywhere from once a week to once every 3 weeks (they wear the same clothes repeatedly), but not a lot else. Men do some food shopping and take out the trash, but that is all.

So what do Azerbaijani families do at home? Not much. There is a lot of TV watching. Broadcast TV has a ban against foreign languages and Azerbaijan produces very little original programming, so families who want to watch Turkish or Russian TV have to get satellite dishes. The wives invite friends and sometimes neighbors over once a week or so and are very hospitable and excited to see them. Also once a week or so, families will go separately or together to a relative’s home. They call it “going guesting”.

A couple of weeks ago, my family went to a relatives home to say goodbye for 18 months to a cousin who was going into the (compulsory) service. The men and women went to separate rooms to chat and eat, although some walked back and forth visiting. The girl cousins danced and brothers occasionally came in and danced with their sisters or girl cousins. Azerbaijanis are good dancers. Some of the young man’s friends were outside the house and he occasionally went out to chat with them. But they were not invited to the party.

For men, there is less to do than any other member of the family. There are no spectator or televised sports that are popular here. Adult men don’t seem to play sports and don’t have religious activities (Azerbaijan is listed as one of the least religious countries in the world, although they identify strongly with Muslim culture). I watched my host father as he came home several nights this week. One night, he came home, changed clothes and went to a wedding of someone from work. It is common that spouses not attend as most of the time, work friends sit together at sex-segregated tables. So my host mother did not go. The other nights, though, he came home, looked around, saw that no one talked with him, looked around some more and left again.

Rather than have their friends over to their homes, men meet friends and male relatives at tea houses, which are usually just for men. Women can entertain at home, but this is not acceptable for men, unless the guest is a relative,so they go to these small tea establishments and may play board games like backgammon and checkers or just sit and talk. It is cheap entertainment, around 35 cents for a cup of tea and helps fill the time.

People complain about how there is nothing to do in our town, which is the second largest city in Ganja. I agree there is not much, but come home with tales of visiting the two small museums, walking in the parks, visiting historical buildings. No one in my family sounds interested in doing any of these things.

I think that doing nothing is a habit. My host sister plans to go to Baku to university next year. I responded that this will be fun for her as she can get out and see all of the museums, the medieval city, parks, concerts, art fairs and all of the other events in a city of 4 million. She responded that she probably wouldn’t go anywhere.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Tents in the Street

Baku is the largest city--about half the population of the country lives there-about 4 million people. My city is the second largest in the country—about 300,000 people. We get around the city by walking, taking a few buses that are available, but mostly riding around in marshrutkas. They are vans that are outfitted with homemade seats. Each driver is an entrepreneur because the vehicle is his and he keeps the money that he makes.

All of the buses and marshrutkas in Ganja would be considered to be in appalling shape by any American standard. The buses would have been considered old in Soviet days and the majority of the marshrutkas would never pass any sort of an inspection in the US. They are likely to be liberally sprinkled with rust and dents, often list to one side , stall out at traffic lights, and some even have seriously cracked windshields. Invariably, the driver smokes and the smell wafts throughout the van.

The advantages are that they cost about 25 cents a ride and they are frequent and plentiful. They stop anywhere on the route as there are few actual bus stops. There are buses and marshrutkas that go all over the country and it is possible to get anywhere that has a road with them. When I have mentioned that some rural people in the US can’t get a job because they don’t have a car, they say “why don’t they take a marshrutka to work?” They are surprised that we don’t have a transportation system that goes throughout the country.

I take a bus to work. It takes a route that for two blocks goes the wrong way down a one-way street. Cars are not allowed to do this, but apparently the bus is allowed. The first time I rode it, I had no idea that it would go the wrong way down a one-way street. Cars come at us from the two lanes, but before a head-on collision , the car in our lane moves over.

Besides marshrutkas, another amenity that we don’t have in the US involves funeral tents. When people die, special tents can be set up on the public streets. The tents are about the size of a semi-trailer and serve as funeral homes. As Muslim custom dictates, bodies are usually buried by nightfall, but the mourning goes on for seven days in the tent.

In my community, men go the tent and women go to the home. Tea is passed, prayers are said and everyone comforts the family. After 40 days, there is another gathering.

On any day, a tent could just appear and block a lane for 7 days. Apparently, they can be put on any side street—not on major thoroughfares, though.

One day, while riding my bus to work, as we got to the place where we go the wrong way down the one- way street, I noticed that the other lane of traffic was completely blocked by one of these “funeral tents”. There was nowhere for the other cars to go, so they just came at us. It was rush hour, so there were plenty of cars. The bus driver inched forward until he blocked the street and the other cars had to back up. We went through this routine for 7 days.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Hearing from Jeff

Everyone is probably tired of hearing from me, so this tine we will hear from one of my fellow volunteers, Jeff.

He is a traditional Peace Corps Volunteer—in his ‘20’s. He joined one year before me and in my training village I got to know his former host mom. As she is a great cook and very friendly, I went over often. She spent a lot of time explaining how superior Jeff was in every way—a good eater, respectful, clean, intelligent, interesting. It got to the point that that I thought, “When I meet this guy I want to punch him in the face”.

I did meet him, of course, and as the mother of a son, I have to say that he is a great young man. He has an interesting blog, too, which is at Jeff is an English teacher volunteer, which means that he partners with an English teacher in a school in a small village and they teach together. The idea is that the teacher will learn some different techniques from the volunteer.

His blog is an interesting mix of stories about his home, his work and his extensive travels inside and outside of the country, along with photos.

Here is an excerpt from a February post:

I decided to ditch my normal fifth grade English lesson last week and give a civics lesson instead. It was the first day back to school after Obama was sworn in as the president, and I wanted to try to explain to them the significance of the event, as several students had commented on it to me. I had to oversimplify quite a bit, and I know that I botched some of the dates that I gave them, but my overall history lesson was based around the history of racial inequality in America and how Obama’s presidency is a symbol of overcoming our ugly history. I think they got it for the most part, and I think they thought it was pretty cool. The conversation changed a little bit when they started asking me questions.

The first one was about whether or not Obama is a Muslim or not, which I’ve learned since then is a debate here, too. I tried to explain that he isn’t, and about the lineage of his name. Sometimes, when students ask me about this, they still have a hard time understanding how a guy named Hussein isn’t a Muslim. I do my best to explain, but sometimes the concept of religious plurality can be too much for kids to understand.

Anyway, the next questions that came up were real tough. I’ll also preface this by saying that I am really glad I had this conversation with my kids. Somehow the question, “what do Americans think of muslims?” came up. Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

What do you tell a room full of Muslim kids about the american national sentiment towards Muslims? The nuances of the topic were too difficult for me to explain, and I didn’t just want to blanket the topic with a generalization, but my hand was forced. “Everybody is different,” I told them, “but a lot of Americans don’t like Muslims.”

“Why not?” They asked.

“Because,” I paused to think of a sensible way to say this: “they think that they are terrorists.”

I winced as I explained this, but I was totally relieved when they all started laughing. It’s like they understood how absurd the whole situation is and gave me a collective “That’s silly.” It was nice to see their reactions because it also reminded me how far removed they are from the serious situations that exist in the world. They’re just kids.

I told them that it was really embarrassing for me to tell them that, but that Americans can be ignorant people sometimes. The inevitable “Why?” came up after I explained this, and I went into a short explanation of September 11th. Most of the kids new about it (these kids were about 3 when it happened), but I filled them in on some details.

We ran out of time, but I think they came away knowing a little bit more about America, how it can be a really ugly place, and how it can be a cool place, too. Still, after an interesting conversation on a very heavy topic, I was pleased (rather than disappointed) that the fact that aroused the most interest in the class was that the World Trade Center buildings were 110 stories tall. That really blew them away. I could see myself getting bothered by the fact that they were paying such attention to a side note, but it reminded me that these guys are just kids and that they can only take so much in one day.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Sheep

A couple of weeks ago we had a two-day meeting here in Ganja with Peace Corps Volunteers who started with me last September. It was the first time we were together in a group since we left for our assignments in December. It was interesting to see everyone and hear how they are doing.

Our assignments are broken down into three categories—those who work as English teachers typically live in small villages and team teach with an Azerbaijani English teacher. Often they are the only foreigner for miles and have to travel on the weekend to see another volunteer and to keep track of their friends and faily at home by finding an internet café. Some villages have no electricity or gas at night and even in the daytime, gas and electricity are not guaranteed. A few villages do not yet have gas lines. So some volunteers keep warm with wood stoves.

Others are youth development workers—which means they primarily serve those under 25 years of age. They are assigned to a youth organization and spend part of their time working there and part of their time organizing and working with youth on their own. These workers are located in small villages and larger cities all over the country.

My group is the Community Economic Development group and we work in businesses, mostly in larger cities. All of us are to spend part of our time with our organizations and part on our own projects that interest us. I work 3 ½ days a week at a micro-credit organization and work on mostly non-business project with the rest of my time.

Last week, for example, I led a weekly English conversation club, which is a group of English speakers who want to improve their spoken English. I get to know Azeri people this way. I also met with two different university students and walked around my city with them. We get to know each other and talk about things that interest us--half of the time in English and half of the time in Azeri. I taught two yoga classes and had one women’s health discussion group. I did these things with my friend Elaine, who is a Peace Corps Volunteer in my town.

I also went to two Azeri homes, one of which is the relatives of my family. I have been there before and really enjoy visiting them. They live about 45 minutes outside of town in the country. They have about 1 ½ acres of land and on this land they subsist with their four children. They raise chickens, vegetables, have a cow, had calves, and a sheep. The sheep is the one in the picture below. It was their only sheep and when I was there Monday, it ran to greet us as we arrived and dog-like wanted to be petted and tried to kiss my host brother. After playing with if for awhile, we went in to have lunch. Later, I asked where it was, and they said it was gone to be slaughtered. My host brother, who is 20, said he really liked the sheep and would not eat it.

Thursday, April 30, 2009


Last week we had a two-day meeting here in Ganja with Peace Corps Volunteers who started with me last September. It was the first time we were together in a group since we left for our assignments in December. It was interesting to see everyone and hear how they are doing.

Our assignments are broken down into three categories—those who work as English teachers typically live in small villages and team teach with an Azerbaijani English teacher. Often they are the only foreigner for miles and have to travel on the weekend to see another volunteer. Some villages have no electricity or gas at night and even in the daytime, gas and electricity are not guaranteed. A few villages do not yet have gas lines. So some volunteers keep warm with wood stoves.

Others are youth development workers—which means they primarily serve those under 25 years of age. They are assigned to a youth organization and spend part of their time working there. These workers are located in small villages and larger cities all over the country.

My group is the Community Economic Development group and we work in businesses, mostly in larger cities. All of us are to spend part of our time with our organizations and part on our own projects that interest us. I work 3 ½ days a week at a micro-credit organization and work on mostly non-business project with the rest of my time.

Last week, for example, I led a weekly English conversation club, which is a group of English speakers who want to improve their spoken English. I get to know Azeri people this way.. I also met with two different university students and walked around my city with them. We get to know each other and talk about things that interest us--half of the time in English and half of the time in Azeri. I taught two yoga classes and had one women’s health discussion group. I did these things with my friend Elaine, who is a Peace Corps Volunteer in my town.

Elaine is unusual for several reasons. After serving in the Peace Corps in Honduras some years ago, she has great perspective on the job. She has lived an interesting life and is extremely active and outgoing, dresses beautifully, (which is difficult here) and has lovely long hair that curls when it gets damp. She is a huge feminist and has volunteered for different women’s organizations all her life. She reads prolifically and text messages people all day long. Elaine is the oldest volunteer of all Peace Corps Volunteers world-wide and willl be 80 this summer. A party in Tblisi, Georgia with other volunteers is her plan to celebrate her birthday. I will be there.

Monday, April 20, 2009

My mom and Gorbachev

My host mother, a calm person up to now, is really annoyed with me. I can’t follow everything that she is saying, but don’t want to ask detailed questions. I think I know what I said that started her on this tirade, because I have heard all of this before from other people.

It started when she asked me what my daughter, Kelly is up to. I mentioned that she will be attending an event at her school in which the speaker is Mikayil Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR. Under his rule, the Soviet Union collapsed and the 15 countries became separate and mostly democratic. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

At the mention of his name, she stiffened and told me how he is despised in Azerbaijan. She is old enough to remember the time in 1991 when the USSR collapsed and overnight Azerbaijan was cut loose with no federal government and no system for running things. Effectively, no one had a job, at least not one that paid, no one was in charge, schools closed, there were no police, utilities, monetary system, medical services and of course, chaos reigned.

For about three years, things went very badly until the former head of the KGB, who was Azerbaijani, Heydar Aliyev, took over and gradually restored some order. He is widely revered here, with a statue of him in literally every city of any size. He died five years ago and his son took over as president.

Things are still not nearly back to being as successful as they were in the days of the USSR. The GNP is about 10 percent of what is was then, unemployment is very high, health and welfare problems abound (for example, there is a much higher infant and maternal mortality rate), women’s rights have regressed and poverty is high. Many people think that the country is not on an upward trajectory.

My host mother blames Gorbachev for the capitalist economy, which she says is bad for Azerbaijan. In contrast to a time when they could save money and had good schools and full employment, she points to her unemployed son, the low salaries that she and her husband earn (her husband, an engineer, earns about 90 cents an hour), the (in her view) poor medical care and schools (she is a teacher) and is angry that the Soviet Union went away. She is very satisfied with the job that the current president is doing, she just feels that the former system produced better results for the people.

I mention to her that in the US, we constantly read stories about how there was not enough food in the Soviet countries, that Soviets wanted to buy more luxury goods and better quality items, which were not sold there. Also, that they could not travel outside of the 15 country area and were effectively prisoners.

She said that the stories about lack of merchandise and food in Azerbaijan were “lies” and that she can’t afford to travel anywhere in Azerbaijan now, so having the means to travel to 15 countries then was wonderful. The Soviet collective farms produced much more food than privately owned farms produce now and there is no good way to get excess crops out of the country due to poor roads and lack of modern farming machinery. In many cases, the modern equipment that existed in Soviet times has been replaced by donkeys and wagons.

I know now not to discuss this situation with my host mother unless I approach it from a different angle—asking questions and empathizing instead of blurting out to her the American perspective as fact. I realize now how strongly democracy is a knee-jerk reaction for Americans—many of think that everyone would have a better life if they lived in a democracy like ours. But I am coming to appreciate how the type of government one chooses is a reflection on culture, values and a historical perspective.

I realize that what we have in common with people in countries with other types of governments is that we all want the same things—a way to earn a secure living, a good future for our children and the security of being safe in our own communities and countries. For some people, our type of democracy may not be their preference in providing the type of life and security they want.

One other perspective I have come to understand is that we always hear from immigrants in the US how much they like our country and our economic system. As a result, we feel that most people like our system. What I am beginning to understand is that many are not comfortable with our system and these are the people who don’t come to America or who come for an education and then return home.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Clothes--What Azeris have in Common with the Man in Black, Johnny Cash

The clothing can be described as Soviet in appearance. Most clothing is all black, with some trim, such as metal studs, and for women, glitter, rhinestones, black vinyl purses and jackets. Clothing also features lots of silver brocade, mirror sequins, and plastic shiny stuff.

As Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, one might assume that modest clothing is worn. It is true that men don’t show their lower legs, chests or upper arms and swimsuits for men have tops. Women don’t wear shorts, but some do wear tight clothing, theatrical makeup and elaborate hairdos.

Women rarely have hair shorter than shoulder length and when going out everyone tends to dress up much more than we do in the U.S. My host mother is a teacher and women teachers always wear skirts—male teachers always wear suits and ties. However, in the house, women wear “house clothing” such as terrycloth pajamas or a smock over pants so they don’t ruin their good clothing. People have very few clothes compared with Americans and may wear the same outfit most of the week. My host sister, who is 16, has one pair of pajamas that she wears when she is at home and has worn them all winter. I think this is because clothing is more expensive here than in the US and since it is mostly black, there is no point in having five black skirts or pairs of pants.

Many men go everywhere in suits, having no casual clothing. My host father hangs around the house in his suit, but does loosen his tie. Azerbaijanis love gold jewelry, but it tends to be in very elaborate settings with many small stones. Women get expensive jewelry at their weddings and many wear the same jewelry every day. Young women enjoy wearing costume jewelry.

Azerbaijan is a good country for an American recovering shopaholic as most Americans would not be tempted by anything they saw in the stores. Besides being more expensive than comparable American goods, the clothing, furniture, jewelry and other goods is just not to our taste.

I have met a few women who wear a hijab, but saw about as many women in a hijab in St. Louis as here. I am getting to know one woman who does wear one. She is the host mother of another Peace Corps worker. She surprised both of us because she did not fit our stereotype of the hijab-wearing woman.

This woman is in her late 40’s and has two daughters in their 20’s. Her family members, like most Azeris consider themselves to be Muslims but do not practice the religion. She had a Koran and met a Jew who gave her a copy of the Torah. She read it and became interested in some of the common characters in the two holy books. After much reading and studying on her own, she decided to become an observant Muslim.

Her husband and family are fine with this, but don’t participate. She is extremely supportive of her daughters and their education and is not pressuring them to marry, as most Azeris do. One of her daughters has no interest in marriage, housework or cooking, has a professional position and an advanced degree. Most Azeri families would not accept a lack of interest in marriage, but this woman is completely supportive.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


My new family has running water, no rodents, no crazy grandma, and has no plans to move to Baku. They are what we call in Azerbaijan “normal”. Just like all those other Azerbaijani words—noutbuk (laptop computer), biznes (business), kofe (coffee) and maşın (machine).

Of course, they are “Azerbaijani normal”, which means before I had been living in the home 24 hours, I knew (without asking) how much money they made, how much they spent on everything and got a rundown of their family background and history, including their medical history and issues with relatives and was asked all of these things about myself.

The home is on a wide major street and is an apartment on the second floor of a two-story building. It is considered to be a nice home on a nice street in a nice section of town. The apartment has a living room/dining room combination, a kitchen, shower/toilet room with a sink outside the door, two large bedrooms and a balcony. My family has a husband and wife, a 20-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter.

The husband, who has a degree from the local scientific college, is an engineer, although I am not sure what he actually does at work. He works 7 days a week for about 12 hours a day. The wife is a third-grade teacher. Teachers work from about 8:00 to about noon. She then has students to tutor for about two hours in the afternoon and makes extra money doing this.

This family, like all the Azerbaijani families I have lived with, is very friendly, supportive and understanding. They take me with them if I want to go with them on errands, to visit relatives or just to the market. They guide me when I do something incorrect--like cross my legs on the bus--and try to understand when I don't follow their advice--like continue to go to internet cafes when most Azerbaijanis feel that only "bad women" go there.

My host brother is unemployed after having recently lost a job in which he drove a truck to local markets, selling them toiletry and soap products. He worked from about 9 a.m. to about 9 p.m. seven days a week. My host sister has finished high school and is in a special course to study for university entrance. Those who do well do not have to pay tuition.

Peace Corps volunteers, when speaking with each other about their families refer to our "mom, dad, sister and brother." So although I have been older than all my moms, I still call them that. My host father makes about 160 AZN a month, which is about $200. My host mother, between her teaching and her after-school students makes AZN140 a month, which is about $175. Out of the AZN300 they make, they spend AZN200 on their daughter’s prep course for university. This course is for 9 months.

They spend nothing to live in their home, as Azeris own their own homes—they were given homes by the government. Their utilities run about $40 per month—gas, electricity water and phone. Food and clothing is their only other expense. Food is about $25 a week and is very meager—today we have two loaves of bread to eat (about 50 cents each), some spongy potatoes, some small, old apples, a can of fat, a few carrots, some onions and a little pasta. As I previously mentioned, the markets are full of beautiful locally grown produce, but we don’t have any of it.

My host parents sleep in one of the bedrooms, my host brother sleeps on the couch (and always has) and I inhabit my host sister’s room, so she sleeps in her parents’ room.

Once we are in our permanent assignments for four months, we are able to renegotiate our contracts with our families. I have renegotiated mine so that beginning April 12, I can pay them for my room only and buy my own food. I will have about AZN3 a day, or $3.60 to buy food. I am really looking forward to this because I can eat adequately on this sum—goodbye to spongy potatoes and white bread.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Food in Azerbaijan

I love the food here. I feel the food is of a better quality, more types of food are available, and it is healthier. Besides the fact that almost all the food here is locally grown without pesticides, most Azerbaijanis are excellent cooks and enjoy cooking.

The market in my town is amazing. It covers about four square blocks with huge quantities of lush, beautiful produce. This time of year, there are mountains of shiny, plump tangerines from southern Azerbaijan, cartloads of apples from northern Azerbaijan, every kind of winter vegetable you can imagine, the most beautiful spinach I have ever seen, and loads of freshly cut herbs.

There are stalls of freshly made yogurt, homemade cheeses and sausages, dried and fresh spices. Beautiful dried apricots, figs and prunes are displayed. The food is organically produced, but is not professionally certified, so is not technically organic. The food is inexpensive and mostly does not come in packages. Do you want yogurt, milk or cottage cheese? Bring your own buckets. Do you want eggs laid yesterday? They will be put into a small plastic bag instead of a carton. Round loaves of bread are stacked without any covering. As a result, Azerbaijani families generate very little trash.

The recipes are mostly quite different from the foods we eat. One snack food is lavash that is sprinkled with goat cheese. Different green herbs are chopped up and sprinkled over the lavash. It is then rolled up and eaten. This is made and eaten at home. Delicious. Another is a huge pot of freshly made yogurt with a couple of eggs, stirred on the stove until it boils. Then chopped herbs are dropped in and it is served. They also make a great sauce for meat and vegetables by mincing garlic in yogurt and leaving it sit for a day or so.

But snacks are not what they are in US. Azeri people in my town eat at meals, not in between. They don’t have paper cups or plates or plasticware because they don’t eat away from home. They don’t eat on the bus, drink while walking down the street or stash food in their purse or pocket. They are not very interested in eating out as the food is the same at the restaurant as it is at home. But they like to entertain and have guests often.

Men shop for food at the markets as well as women and men and women seems to be equally represented in owning and operating market businesses.

One of the disappointing things is that quite a few Azeris don’t much like fruits and/or vegetables. Bread and potatoes are staples as are paint-can sized buckets of beef fat. A family can easily use up one of these cans in two weeks. And my families have not spent much on food, even though it is cheap, so I go weeks at a time with only apples for fruit. Apples are the cheapest fruit in the winter. Of course, it is not appropriate to demand different fruit, so I eat apples.

Why is there so much cheap food here? One answer is that the food can’t easily be exported, as the transportation system is so poor. Bad roads, poor railroad tracks and little mechanization result in an inability to move crops out of the country easily. In Soviet days, the transportation system was better, and many canning factories existed to process food for the entire Soviet bloc, creating many jobs, which no longer exist. (In fact there are abandoned factories of many types in several regions of of Azerbaijan, especially near Baku. Near our training village, there are long stretches of road with huge plants abandoned in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. It is eerie to see the deteriorating infrastructure of huge buildings, pipelines, railroad tracks and abandoned boxcars that were ready in 1991 to take the goods to market.)

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, crop production is down some 75 percent as irrigation systems and machinery that existed then are no longer available. Also, as the collective farms were split into small farms for families to run, the abilities of the families to manage their acreage and basic knowledge of how to farm varies widely. It is estimated that 20 to 40 percent of crops spoil in the fields for lack of a market or the ability to get it there.

My current host family makes different hot and cold soups, and has lots of bread and potatoes on hand. All of it is covered in fresh herbs. Despite the abundance of cheap food, many families have very little cash to spend. I will cover this topic and meat in future blogs.

Beginning in April, though, we will be able to renegotiate our agreements with our host families and just pay them for our room. This way, we can keep the food money, buy and cook food ourselves. I am looking forward to this arrangement, although my budget will still be limited.