Most volunteers travel out of the country while they are here. We get 22 days travel time each year, and the Peace Corps hopes we will spend most of the travel in the country. This is because when we go back to America, we are supposed to share our experience here with others and speak knowledgeably about Azerbaijan. We are given the equivalent of about $25 per month for travel in the country. Since buses are cheap and many times we can stay with another volunteer, the money is adequate.
Of course, since the country is small--about the size of Maine—we are able to do significant in-country travel over a few days, including weekends. There are numerous holidays throughout the year, so some volunteers travel in Azerbaijan without using vacation time and spend most of their 44 days of travel during their two years of service outside the country.
Most volunteers use some of their vacation time to return to America once for family events such as weddings, funerals or for Christmas. Nearby travel alternatives are somewhat limited—to the south is Iran; to the east, the Caspian Sea; to the north, a part of Russia that is experiencing a lot of civil unrest; and also Georgia, which is interesting and where many volunteers go.
To the west is Armenia, where we can’t go. Azerbaijan is locked in conflict with Armenia, which is occupying part of Azerbaijan. Further to the west is a separate part of Azerbaijan which we can fly to; and west of that is Turkey.
So when my sister recently came to visit, we visited several cities in Azerbaijan; the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi; and Istanbul in Turkey.
One of the things I like about traveling in Azerbaijan is that outside of Baku, the capital, there are few tourists or foreigners. Azerbaijanis welcome tourists and sometimes I even feel like a celebrity traveling around Azerbaijan because tourists are spoiled. It is easy to engage with locals and learn from them. Interesting sites are never crowded and it is possible to see much more than in a roped-off guarded tourist-popular museum in another country. Museums in the regions of Azerbaijan mostly display things outside of glass cases and touching is often allowed. The curation is somewhat haphazard and the information about each piece is often scant or missing, but the overall experience is interesting and charming.
Tourist sites are also different that in more often-visited countries. For example, Azerbaijan is one of the few places in the world with mud volcanoes. They are vast flat plains of dirt with occasional small and large pools of mud in which gases regularly pop to the surface, creating bubbling pools which sometimes throw up a geyser of mud. The mud is cold. Most of the locals don’t realize they are there—they just go about their business in their villages. One you find the volcanoes—nothing is marked on the road--you can walk right up to the edge of an individual volcano, stick your hand in the volcanoes and maybe get hit by a geyser. Nearby are 20,000 year-old cave paintings. There are guided tours in the cave section if you want, but the whole scene is relaxed and there are no barriers.
In the few artisan workshops in Azerbaijan, such as a rug weaving workshop, workers will stop and talk about their work or allow us to sit and watch them work. They will explain the different types of designs, how wool is spun from local sheep, is dyed with vegetables, fruits and herbs, how designs are chosen and how rugs are made.
So when my sister came, I knew we wanted to visit certain sites in Azerbaijan. I also took her to Tbilisi, Georgia, where I had been twice before. But this time, I thought I was ready to go to Istanbul with her.