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.