Sitting with Locals

Sitting with Locals


I got home May 21. I was supposed to stay in country for 27 months, 3 of training and 24 of service. I decided, because I had a wife doing all my work at home while I was gone, she needed me back as soon as possible, so I just spent two school years in Azerbaijan after training instead of two calendar years. The 23 months gave me time to do 98 percent of my work as TEFL, teaching English as a foreign language,, so I don’t feel too badly about leaving early. We had 15 of 45 in my group return home early, which is typical. Most went home the first year.

It was quite a "trip." Wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Sheki PCVs

Sheki PCVs
Three of my five sitemates.

The Azerbaijani Village: Indiana in the 1950’s

By Joel Robbins

Two small cars can hardly pass on a crooked, narrow Azerbaijani village cobblestone or mud street. Walls extend right to the roads. Almost every property is surrounded by a stone or a solid metal barrier. Once in a while it’s just a wire fence. Drivers have to dodge cows, goats, sheep, mules, water buffalo, walkers and donkey carts. Most of Azerbaijan, where I am serving in the Peace Corps, is open range, so there are hundreds of thousands of shepherds outside all day tending their herds and flocks wherever there is grass, not only in rangeland, but also along village and town lanes and streets.
When I visit a student or friend in a village, I usually knock on the solid steel double gate, then open the small door in the gate, duck and step up and enter a garden. These doors are only a little over 5 feet high and often have a one-foot threshold. Visitors may have to scrape some of nature’s old-style fertilizer off their heels before entering the yard.
The Real Peace Corps
The Peace Corps Volunteers in Sheki, where I live and work, are regularly teased by the one PCV in a village near town. Joe says, “Sheki’s not the real Peace Corps. You ought to live in the village.”
We don’t necessarily agree with his assessment, because there’s not one “real” Peace Corps experience. There is, though, the long-held belief from 1960s PC stories that every PCV lives in a grass hut, eats beans, goat meat and rice twice a day, never washes, sleeps on a mat on a dirt floor, and is stationed in an African nation.
My son Mason had similar conditions during his PC tenure in Haiti eight years ago, and some of that style of living still exists in Peace Corps, but even Joe in the village doesn’t live like that in 2009. Besides, PC is in some 120 countries, from Eastern Europe to Guatemala. These emerging countries may lack the luxuries we are used to, but they are hardly all grass-hut and beans-and-rice nations.
Ayten’s Village Home
The reason I am writing about the village is that today only one college girl showed up for my conversation club, so I asked Ayten to practice speaking by telling me in her broken English about her home. She rents a shared room with another village girl, Haddiye from Oxud Kendi, in Sheki while she is enrolled in college, but she lives in a village called Ashaga Goynuk. The name means lower blue-something, but the something (nuk, pronounced nooch) has been lost over time.
Ayten (half moon) is 20. All her front upper teeth are gold. Azeris drink tea all day long, usually through lumps of sugar clamped between their teeth. You normally can’t drink water out of any faucet in the country, so boiled water poured over shredded tea leaves is the Azerbaijan method of hydrating without getting sever diarrhea. The sugar means that many Azerbaijanis past 15 have caps on most of their teeth. There is nothing sophisticated about Ayten, like there is about the girls from the rayon (region) centers. I like that as a change.
Her sister is Maral, 15, and her brother Vusal is 19 and away on his mandatory 1-year military service. Her father, Mohlud, is 49, and her mother, Hokuma, is 35. This age must be wrong.
She describes her village home as a big, five-room house. It has a bathroom (no shower or toilet), a guest room (living room), bedroom (where they all sleep), a kitchen (where they also eat) and a corridor (a long, enclosed porch-like hall). The corridors of Sheki Rayon houses have lots of windows so the rooms mentioned above can be illuminated through windows facing the corridor. Electricity is not always dependable for lighting.
Garden or Orchard?
Azerbaijanis call their yards gardens, but we would more likely call sections of the yards orchards. Ayten bragged that one part of the family garden had pear, fig (black and white), cherry (gilas and albali), alcha, quince, apple, yellow cornel, white and red pomegranate and eight mulberry trees, white and black. There are always grape vines in Azerbaijani yards, often providing shade over a sitting bower, and the orchard has two hazelnut trees and two qoz (other nut) trees.
Her dad plants the trees and her mother tends the garden. I didn’t bother writing a list of vegetables their garden contains, but I remember peas, cucumbers, lettuce, cabbage, black carrots (really more purplish), onions, tomatoes (which she first mispronounced as pomatoes), peppers, dill, parsley, melons and eggplant.
A Taste of Farm Life
Also in the walled-in garden is an outhouse (squat toilet), a chicken coop, a small barn with haymow under a gable roof, and a garage for the green motorcycle with sidecar. They don’t own a car. Few villagers own cars. There is also a tendir in the yard. A tendir is an enormous round brick oven for baking bread. A fire is built in the middle, the dough is prepared sticky, then it is slapped onto the inside of the oven wall to bake. The yard also has an old house in it that is small and no longer used.
They own one bull and two cows (for milk), two calves, ten hens, one rooster and a dog named Rex, pronounced reches. The entire walled-in area is about 70 by 90 meters.
Ashaga Goynuk (pronounced Aah-shah-ga Joy-nooch) has five food stores, a fruit shop, a clothing store, a computer store, a butcher shop and a furniture store. Food stores tend to be tiny, with a little bit of everything, from needles to noodles and shoe polish to nail polish. Every village has a shadlik saray (wedding palace), but many summer weddings are outside and everyone in the village attends.
Stepping Back into Rural Indiana
I have not been to Ashaga Goynuk, but I have been to other mountain villages, such as Bash Kungut, Bash Zeyzedt, Illisu and a village outside of Gebela. Ashaga Goynuk sounds typical.
Villages have not had natural gas (wood heat only by tiny metal six-siders) since Soviet times, shopping is limited, and culture is found in gatherings in gardens, wedding palaces and chayxanas (tea houses), but chayxanas are only for men. Sheki is a great place to live with its open bazaar for shopping, a few many Azeri and Turkish restaurants, natural gas (although irregular), and other amenities, but I wouldn’t mind living in a village and experiencing the “real” Peace Corps.
Actually, the villages remind me of Arcadia, Indiana, where I grew up in the 1950s. Our farm neighbors at that time still had outside toilets, our shower was in the open in our basement, and on our ten acres we had two apple trees, two pear trees and one cherry tree. There was a currant bush and a grapevine. We had chickens, ducks, cats, dogs, a pony, pea foul and plenty of room for sheep. The garden was a half acre of a little of everything—melons, sweet corn, green onions, tomatoes, peas, beans, strawberries and other fresh fruits and vegetables. The eight acres of tillable land sometimes was planted in tomatoes or sweet corn by the local cannery. It was a pretty good life then--a little like an Azerbaijani village today.

A Spring Adventure in Azerbaijan

By Joel Robbins
The leaves are just unfolding on the grape vines on my balcony. With all the brick walls and orange tile roofs, it reminds me that my first thoughts about my Sheki residence were that it was like an Italian villa. I am a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sheki, Azerbaijan.
The grass is still brown on “my mountain,” Xan Yaylaqa, the king’s summer pasture. It is 6,500 feet high. Below the timberline, the trees are purplish, but on the lower foothills the color is Irish green.
The lilacs, both white and violet, are in full bloom. The mulberries haven’t come out yet, but since Sheki was a stop on the ancient Silk Road, you can bet they will be out soon. Silk worms need mulberry leaves to feed on, and Sheki still has a silk factory. It’s good to feel the warmth of the air, which makes all of us in Sheki want to plan outings.
So Sunday I spent the day with Peace Corps Volunteers Judy and Megan, who I had invited along on an excursion planned by John, a European Council (part of European Union) consultant and me. I was to take John to the Xan House and some other Sheki sites, and he was to show me an archeological dig and a pottery. John is in Azerbaijan to look for projects that can be funded by the EU.
Sneaking into the King’s House
It turned out to be a beautiful day. First we went to the tiny shebeke shexi, stained-glass window workshop. Three generations of craftsmen have restored the windows of Xan Saray (the 18th century King’s Palace), worked on the 18th century King’s House, made new shebeke windows for community buildings, and worked on other restoration projects in Sheki. The son of the founder and his boys showed us the shop’s tools and products. The glass and wood dividers fit together like a complicated jigsaw puzzle, so the master craftsman took a corner of a window apart and deftly reassembled it while we audibly oohed and aahed.
Next I pointed the way through cobblestone streets to the Xanovlarin Evi, the King’s House, which is locked to the public. It has been in the process of being restored for years, but it looks like it is currently slowly falling back into disrepair. I had snuck into it two times before and know the family that lives next door, so I yelled, “Salaam” a couple of times at the entrance to their garden and got a “welcome” and a “xosh galmishiniz” (Azeri for welcome).
We climbed a rickety wooden ladder up their garden wall and down a metal ladder into the Xanovlarin Evi garden. Then we entered the house and took photos of the shebeke windows and several unique, ornate fireplaces. The great hall in the middle of the house was locked, but a window to the upper floor was open, so we took pictures from outside of the restored paintings on the inside ceiling.
Navigating the Dark Fazil Village Labyrinth
Driver Ilham next took us 25 kilometers east through the village of Ashaga Chungute to Fazil Village Labyrinth, which is an archeological museum. It’s called the World of Eternal Silence. When we got there the door was locked, so we stood around and enjoyed the beautiful pastureland. A village family was making tendir bread, and we waited for it to be plucked off the inside of the circular ovens. Tendir bread dough is patted out flat and round like pizza dough, rubbed with egg then slapped onto the inside wall of the hot oven. It was excellent. We just stood around in a drizzle tearing off chunks of warm, yeasty bread and chewing. Judy and Megan took some pictures of sheep and goats and the villagers.
Finally a key appeared and we were told we could go into the labyrinth. It turned out that it had rained and the electricity was out in the underground museum, so the caretaker had at first been embarrassed to open the door. He lit a small shahm (candle) and led us into the black tunnel. The original project required that skeletons, skulls, pottery and swords be partially excavated and then brick vaults built over each 3rd Century burial site. The green grassy hillside was then restored over the labyrinth. Narrow passageways lead visitors from one display to another. We used light from our phones and cameras to navigate the dark labyrinth and to get a better look at the artifacts.
On the outing to the labyrinth, Megan got a glimpse of a lynx while we were all standing in a poppy field taking pictures of the red flowers. Then we saw a large heron. We took pictures of a new mosque and minaret at Ashaga Chungute, snapped shots of horse carts, and passed plenty of donkey carts too.
Visiting the Gafgaz Café and a Sheki Pottery
Back in Sheki we had draft beers, kabobs and grape leaf dolma at the Gafgaz Café. Gafgaz means Caucasus. This particular dolma was made from lamb and rice wrapped in grape leaves. The kabobs were just chunks of baked lamb.
Our last stop was at the home of a potter. His house was very bright and prosperous looking, but his pottery workroom was small, dark and understandably dirty. He climbed over his cement work area and dropped into to a hole and onto his seat. He gave the wheel a kick and threw five identical jars. We also viewed his kiln, which was about ten feet tall, top loaded and wood fired. John was hoping to support projects for tourism and crafts in the Sheki area, so the day was beneficial for him, and Judy, Megan and I enjoyed an excursion into the warm, green spring countryside after a cold, frigid mountain winter

Home From Sheki for the Holidays

By Joel Robbins
For weeks I had prepared myself to spend the holidays in Azerbaijan, the way I did Thanksgiving, away from my family and friends. All of a sudden I found myself in travel limbo. What am I doing here? That’s what I asked myself today and everyday, which is weird, because I am in America, not Azerbaijan, where I had been asking that question for a year and a half. I am home on emergency leave because my mom died, but after the funeral, I have been just pacing the floor wondering what to do. My body is in Kosciusko County, but my head (work and projects) are in Azerbaijan, where I am serving in the Peace Corps.
In Azerbaijan I read two heavy books and one light-weighter a week because I have no TV. Here I fell back into being a couch potato with a twitching finger playing a chaotic tune on the remote. I’m not used to trying to listen to a newscaster talking at warp speed and out of breath while messages race across the bottom of the screen and inset videos make me think the world, including the US, has gone violently crazy.
I got used to the central heat in my house-in-the-woods near Dewart Lake very quickly, though. In Sheki when I come home from work, a meeting or wake up in the morning my room is about 55 degrees, and it takes 15 to 20 minutes to bring it into the high 60s. Our Dewart Lake refrigerator is an enemy, with me grazing in a freezer containing ice cream and popping cans of sugary pop from a frig shelf. I haven’t discovered what’s in the vegetable and fruit-crisper drawers yet.
Walking for the sake of walking has been my lot since returning to the US. I never walk for exercise in Azerbaijan, because I have a half-mile jaunt to my college and a mile or mile-and-a-half walk to shops, Turkish restaurants and the open bazaar. Volunteers can’t drive in country and the public transportation stops running up the mountain to my part of Sheki at around 7 pm.
Dewart Lake neighbors and area friends have been making me feel more at home, though. On my walk through the Logan Scout Camp I met and shared news with Barb, Joel and Gary Hogle. Tim Stiffler pulled into Bill Haldewang’s driveway while I was on another walk and we warmed the subfreezing air with our chatter for about 20 minutes. Sara and I had snacks one evening with closest neighbors David and Brenda Smith and Jim and Bert Redslob. Harlan and Evelyn Steffen, with whom Sara and I share grandchildren, hosted us for a Sunday lunch with their son Fred and his wife, who is our daughter, Kristin. Curt and Betty Richcreek had us over for chilli ‘n cheers. Plus the congregation at Wawasee Lakeside Chapel greeted me warmly two Sundays. Ron Carmichael, Karl Keiper, my brother Jon, and Brent Kaiser advised me about Medicare parts A through Z. After these experiences I was starting to feel at home again in the tri-town area.
Sara made me feed the birds each morning, which was a treat. No one that I know of feeds birds in Azerbaijan. I think I did see a migrating chickadee one day off my Sheki balcony, but I haven’t checked the migratory routes for the species to confirm my birding abilities.
Getting my driver’s license made me more anxious to return to the US for good. In Azerbaijan you must register and obtain an internal passport each time you move from one region (county) to another. It took me 5 trips to the police department, one Azeri friend, my college director and lots of headaches to get my first photo-ID passport, which only lasted 6 months. It took three visits to acquire my second one. My BMV license at Warsaw took me one trip and 5 minutes.
Now that I’m in the US I remember that Mom started buying me clothes for Christmas when I hit junior high. She saw my disappointment that first Christmas of practical gifts, and from then on I received a toy every year even when I got into my late 50’s. There I would be on Christmas morning unwrapping such things as sweaters, ties, Jockeys, toenail clippers and socks when a toy car would appear from a box labeled: To Joey from Mom. That she remembered always caught me off guard. I would give the car an obligatory zooom, zooom across a tabletop while everyone laughed.I received a great present this Christmas. A bittersweet one. The emergency trip home from Sheki to be with my wife, two children, their spouses, my four grandchildren, assorted friends and relatives during the holidays. Mom was sneaky that way. A book I was reading during the week that I received the news of my mom’s passing noted that those who pass away give the living one last gift, the fellowship and warmth of a gathering of family and friends that seldom takes place without a death. Thank you, Mom. Besides bringing me into the world, this is the best present you ever gave me.



The ‘Truth’:It Was a Sad Day in Sheki

“Hello, Mr. Joel. Where are you? Haqqiqat Muellima dead. That’s what student say me. I don’t know if it real or joke.”
That was the call I got from Aysel, one of my students at the Sheki Pedagogical College in Azerbaijan, where I am serving in the Peace Corps. Haqqiqat Muellima (Haqqiqat Teacher) is my supervisor, the one who applied for the PC volunteer, me. She is also an English teacher.
When I closed my cell phone, I tried to make sense of the call. I had talked to Haqqiqat Teacher several times the day before, and she had come into my classrooms to question students about previous absences. She had been fine—her normal self.
I thought, it could be a joke, since some students tried to avoid Haqqiqat Teacher because she held them accountable when they missed school for a wedding, family event or to shop with friends without getting her permission. She did a good job but that didn’t make her the most popular person with truant students. Most students, though, loved her.
An hour later my cell phone rang again.
“Hello, Mr. Joel. It’s truth. Arif Teacher said me. It is bad for us. Are you at school? I don’t think we have classes.” Ironically, I thought, haqqiqat means truth in Azeri.
I was showing a PC volunteer and her parents around Sheki when I received the call, and we had just climbed a spiral staircase up the middle of a dark, deserted, brick minaret. The views overlooking Sheki and the Kish River Valley to the south west, and the snow-capped mountains to the north were “digital moments” for my friends, and I told Aysel I would be there later. I closed my phone and, as I gazed over the tile rooftops of Haqqiqat’s hometown, began to feel the impact her death was going to have on the students, faculty and me.
We left the minaret and took a marshrutka to a Turkish restaurant for lunch, and then walked through the open bazaar until it was time for me to go to the college to see if my classes were meeting.
My phone rang.
“Hello, Mr. Joel. How are you? We don’t have class. We go to Haqqiqat Teacher house. Will you go?”
“Of course. I will be at the college in about 15 minutes.”
When I arrived there were cars, a marshrutka and a city bus waiting. Altun, one of my conversation club members, called, “Mr. Joel, come here.” So I boarded the bus with him. It was standing room only. Aysel, a rose in her left hand, waved at me with her right from one of the front seats.
When we got to Haqqiqat Teacher’s house, there were cars parked everywhere on the mud and cobblestone street. We dodged puddles to get to the large gate in the stone wall. Two mullahs were presiding. The female teachers went inside the house, where the body was, with other women. The students stood in the orchard outside the door, and the men sat on long benches at long tables. We were served tea and candy. One mullah periodically prayed in Arabic, while we first held our hands palms up to receive blessings and then wiped our faces as symbolic petitions for departed saints, friends and relatives.
The sighs, gasps and other mournful sounds from inside made my throat feel swollen and my eyes moist. There were probably a couple hundred people in attendance. Many teachers had a color picture of Haqqiqat Teacher pinned to their shirts and blouses. She was 54 years old when she died, with a husband and two sons in their early twenties.
Finally the body was brought out wrapped in cloth, suspended in a Persian carpet. It was placed in a wooden litter with a wire frame placed over it. The frame was covered with a black cloth, a purple cloth and a white cloth. All had Arabic on them. I only recognized the word for Allah.
The mullahs chanted and sang more Arabic over the body, and then men lifted the litter above their heads and a procession left the orchard. All the men walked behind the body while the women, still crying loudly, stopped just outside the gate. Altun, in the front of the procession, carried a large framed picture of Haqqiqat Teacher. I didn’t see any men crying. The litter was put into the back of a truck, and the men walked through the streets for more than a mile before entering the cemetery.
The grave had been dug ahead of time. Two men jumped into it, while several other men handed Haqqiqat Teacher’s body carefully into their outstretched arms. They placed it snugly against one edge of the hole, then began propping slabs of stone against the side of the grave to cover it. The head was places toward the west and feet toward the east in Muslim style. Next they placed boulders against the slabs and fitted them tightly. The sun was trying to close out the day, just as we stood ceremoniously closing out Haqqiqat Teacher’s earthly existence.
Dirt was hand packed over this layer and followed by more rocks. Slabs were placed at the head and foot of the grave as temporary markers, reminiscent of bed head and footboards. Then relatives and friends took turns with four shovels and sifted gravel and earth into the grave. Eventually they produced a two-foot high mound. Water was poured onto the mound and then red roses were inserted into it. Two students added wreaths of flowers with ribbons that proclaimed that her students and colleagues were honoring her life and mourning her passing away.
As we slowly left the cemetery, all of us silently thinking of our own mortality, many mourners stopped by the nearby graves of friends, relatives and acquaintances. Several stood gazing at triple headstones. The deceased had all died on the same day this year, so I assume it was from an automobile accident. Azeri headstones have the image of the grave’s inhabitants etched in white. All of them, of course, face toward Mecca.
The air had turned chilly with the setting of the sun and cold air dropping into the valley from snowy mountain tops. Coats were wrapped a little tighter and caps pulled down a little further.
Less that 24 hours after Haqqiqat Teacher had greeted me in the college hallways and talked to me in my classrooms she had ceased to live and was in her final resting place. I would never see her again and she would greet me in the hallways and classrooms no more. God rest her soul.

You Gotta Love'm

You gotta love’m. Look at the faces of the children in this picture of a fourth form class in Sheki, Azerbaijan, where I am serving in the Peace Corps.
Since I have visited some of the schools in my neighborhood and I walk all over my section of town saying hi to everyone, tons of kids know me. Even those who don’t seem to identify me as American. So, I get lots of English phrases thrown at me.
Usually when a kid says “Hello. How are you?” I walk over to him, grab his hand and say, “Fine. How are you?” Azeri students usually can converse only in a few stock phrases and sentences even though they may have had five years of English vocabulary and grammar.
Conversations go like this:
Me: Hi. How are you?
Them: Thank you.
No, how are you?
How are you?
(Grooan!) No, how are you? Say fine.
Say fine.
(Grooooan!) What do your parents do for a living?
(Groooooan!) See ya later.
I love you.
They can ask my name and answer about their name, but that seems the limit for most of them. Therefore, I decided to adopt a class in a neighborhood school. Four of my college students go with me, and we separate the class into groups of 3 or 4 and work on their conversation. Mostly the first lesson consists of: How are you? Fine, good or ok. Where do you live? How old are you? Do you have brothers and sisters? What day is it?
My college students and I model reading a prepared dialogue in front of the entire class while they repeat what we read. That is followed by having them practice reading the dialogue in their small groups.
Next a pair of student volunteers comes up to read to the class. The last thing we do is have them try the dialogue without using their papers. It’s amazing how quickly most of them can progress in their conversation skills in one period using this simple method.
I didn’t choose to work permanently with the pictured fourth form or a sixth form I visited, even though it was fun and good exercise singing “Head and shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes…” Instead I chose an eighth form with students ages 12 to 14 in it. They are squirrelly, as are most middle-school-aged students, but I love their energy.


It’s a hot day in the desert of Azerbaijan. I have walked into town and back. Walking back was all uphill. Boy, do I ever want a cold Coke with lots of ice. My host family notices that I am sweating profusely and that my shirt is soaked. “Ich istayersan?” (Do you want something to drink?) “Bali, bali,” yes, yes, I reply. In less than a minute I am handed a steaming glass of chay (tea). I just thought I was sweating before! The hot drink stretches my pores to the snapping point and Victoria Falls flows forth. Welcome to the customs of Azerbaijan, where I am serving in the Peace Corps.
When I do find a cold drink, my Azeri friends stare as I drink and enjoy it. “Soyukdur?” they ask. (Is it cold?) Then they point at their necks and tell me that cold drinks make them ill. Fans make them ill. Cold air blowing through a window in a car or bus makes them ill.
Do you have tea in America or just coffee? they ask. I tell them I drink tea all the time in America? But it is full of buz (ice), lots of ice, and is usually stored in the refrigerator. I explain that we call it ice tea or iced tea. They shake their heads, trying to make sense of my words and practices in opposition to their beliefs about personal health. How can I be still alive at 64 when I drink cold fluids and the average life expectancy for men in AZ is 59? Sitting on cold objects (rocks, marble benches, stone walls, etc.) will freeze a girl’s ovaries, I have been told.
It’s difficult for female Peace Corps volunteers in Azerbaijan, because it is a man’s world here. If a group of volunteers wants to go out to eat, we have to find a place that will accept girls. Chayxanas (teahouses) and most restaurants are olmaz (not allowed) for females in towns and villages. Many Azeri women have never eaten at a restaurant or sat and had tea at a cafe. Men visit these places daily.
Women can’t drink in public, unless it is at a wedding or during New Years. Then they can have a sip of wine or champagne. The men who do not follow strict Muslim traditions, which forbid the use of alcohol, may drink beer or do shots of vodka—thanks to being heavily secularized while part of the Soviet Union. Of course, none of the prohibitive rules of towns or villages apply in the slightly cosmopolitan capital, Baku.
Women are not allowed to drive in many towns and villages or even to ride in the front seat. This is true on minibuses, but they do get the forward seats in the back section, so men tend to sit in the back of minibuses. Men stand up to let women sit. Men won’t let women carry have objects.
Women must have permission to go out in public. They also cannot accept jobs without the consent of their fiancés or husbands. Restaurant wait staff in towns and villages are all men. Most shops are run by men. Women sweep the streets and men collect the garbage. Men do all the heavy manual labor inside and outside the home.
Do you like standing in lines? If not, you may love AZ, because you just push and shove your way to the counter. I would love to see an Azeri his/her first time negotiating an English queue. I received several reprimands my first time in England just investigating the front of queues in London. And I was only trying to investigate where the line was going. I had stood in other queues for 15 minutes or so to find I was in the wrong line.
Those who like fresh food will also love AZ. You can even watch the lamb you will eat for supper being slaughter on the sidewalk and point to the section that you want chopped off. Produce can be purchased right out of the back of a truck or car trunk, straight from the farm.
Breakfast. Aaaaaah, breakfast. Nothing like sitting down to bacon, fried eggs, coffee, a glass of orange juice, milk and a glazed donut. Oops, AZ is a Muslim country, so good luck finding bacon. Donuts? I have not had a donut in more than a year. Fried eggs? Yes, but they are normally scrambled into chopped-up tomatoes and served runny. You can buy orange juice, if a store stocks it, but peach nectar is much more plentiful. So, what is the typical AZ breakfast outside the capital? Salty goat cheese, flat bread and butter. Oh, and, of course, chay.
Fast food is available on streets as donairs, a Turkish food a little like our sandwiches and a lot like Greek gyros. It is tasty and cheap. Most Azeri restaurants have the same menu, hot or cold yogurt, lamb kabobs, cucumber/tomato/cilantro/onion salads, chickpea soup and flat bread. Baku, on the other hand, has several McDonalds and pizza parlors, such as Pizza Hat, yes, Hat, and Pizza Holiday. Besides McDonalds, other American chain restaurants haven’t invaded Baku yet. Mexican-, Georgian-, Indian-, Hungarian-, Turkish-, Thai-, Chinese-, British- and American-style restaurants can also be found. The cuisine doesn’t often taste like what we find in ethnic restaurants in America, though.
Dental care! Not good. Most Azeris drink their chay with a cube of sugar or piece of hard candy chomped between their eye teeth. Therefore, most of them don’t have eye teeth by the age of 17, and many have caps and rotten or missing front teeth in their early teens. In the villages and some towns, these teeth are replaced with gold, almost like jewelry. Some people have only gold teeth showing. Some of my Azeri friends who know I am 64 ask if my teeth are real. I tell them I have about 4 caps and only one missing tooth that is replaced with a bridge. They are amazed. I am part Azeri, dentally, because Dr. Frank Wadas fitted me with a gold crown for a molar some years back..
One university student, who I was trying to teach to say V by using her front teeth, covered her mouth when she spoke. I pulled her hand away to see if she was pressing her upper teeth against her lower lip. Her front upper teeth were missing. I was embarrassed.
Cars in towns and villages are mostly Lada Rivas, the fifth most produced car model in the world. Never heard of it, right? The Volkswagen Beetle is number one. No GM or Chrysler model ranks in the top five.
One day after school I was walking home and several girls behind me were giggling. A male student came up to me, put his fingers to his lips in thought, then formed his statement: “Mr. Joel, your trousers are bad.” Oh, really, I thought. Then he pointed to the seat of my pants. I gave it a brush with my hand and told him I had been sitting on a stone wall earlier. Luckily, I don’t have any ovaries to freeze. It’s amazing. The park is littered heavily with cigarette packages, candy wrappers, and other flotsam and jetsam. There is also a pile of trash that has been decaying next to a general’s bust for three months. Yet the small amount of stone dust, or maybe I backed into the chalk board, on my pants is of monumental importance. It’s all about perception.
Well, that was a short trip down my Azerbaijani memory lane, but not in a Lada, just on my Acer laptop computer.
Transportation Outside of America,
Well, Actually, in Azerbaijan

I have always loved to walk, and where I live in Azerbaijan guarantees I get lots of opportunities to do so. At home in America near Dewart Lake I walked the roads and Logan Scout Camp trails almost daily, logging close to a thousand miles a year. Walking was so strange that people who would meet me for the first time would say, “I know you from somewhere. Oh, yeah, you’re ‘the man that walks.’ I’ve seen you near Dewart Lake.” The Man that Walks label sounds scary, like the title of a horror movie—THE MAN THAT WALKS. That tag indicated how rare walking is in the Midwest, but the majority of people in the world have to walk a lot.
Most people in Sheki, Azerbaijan, where I have been serving in the Peace Corps for more than a year, don’t own cars. Although it is a town the size of Warsaw, most people must walk much more than people in the United States. People walk to work, walk to school, walk to catch public transportation, and walk daily to neighborhood stores that stock everything from bread to thread. Shepherds spend all day every day walking with their flocks of sheep and goats or herds of cattle and water buffalo.
The other forms of locomotion in Azerbaijan are many. For example, in the villages or in the mountains it is not unusual to see a man on a horse dragging a log down the mountain to be used for winter fuel or a beam for a barn. Young boys on mules transporting goods up to shepherds living in the mountains can also be seen if you get out of town in the summertime. On the roads between villages, pony, donkey and horse carts are not uncommon.
Azeri motorized public transport varies more than in America. Of course there are taxis--probably more than 70 of them in Sheki, which, remember, is the size of Warsaw. You can go most places in town for about a dollar twenty (one manat). You can also take them to Baku, a five-hour taxi ride, for about 12 dollars in a tiny Lada or 14 in a comfy 4-cylinder Mercedes if you don’t mind sharing it with three strangers. This is the fastest but least safe means of transportation. Drivers in Azerbaijan don’t follow many rules of the road, therefore you will see them pass on blind curves and pass when there is another car coming, which means cars are occasionally whizzing past each other three wide on a two-lane road. Luckily Ladas are narrow. Seat belts are mandatory in Azerbaijan but they seldom have all their parts, and I have never seen a taxi driver use them. Peace Corps requires that we use them if we ride in the front seat, but often when several volunteers share a cab, the person who draws the short straw and has to sit in the front seat soon realizes he is breaking Peace Corps rules. When drivers see a policeman or police car, they take a loose belt with no clasp attached and drape it over their chest.
Taxis are also the least safe means of travel between cities because AZ is 90% open range. That means all livestock wanders or is led by shepherds wherever there is good grazing, even along streets in large towns. When my son Mason and his wife Ernante were in Azerbaijan and we took a taxi from Shaki to Baku, we probably drove through 20 flocks and herds meandering across highways. Many times a rider could, if he dared, reach out and touch the horns of a water buffalo or the back of a ram from a taxi window.
My least favorite transport is the taxi, mostly because of the arguments with drivers. There is no metering system, so drivers try to get as much money per ride as possible. One time I wanted to take a four-manat ride from the avtovagzal (bus station) to a hotel. The first driver I approached wanted 10. I laughed and offered five. He said 10. I walked to another driver and said I would pay five manat for him to take me to the Absheron Hotel. He said, “oldu,” ok. When I got there and gave him the five, he said I owed him five shirvans, an old form of AZ money that is worth twice as much. It was a complete scam, because no one has had shirvans in their wallets and purses for more than a year. I said no and reached for my day pack in the back seat. He slammed the door and locked it. I reached through the open window, unlocked the door and grabbed my pack. He pulled the pack out of my hand, slammed the door, locked it and drove forward 10 feet. This went on a couple more times before I jerked the bag out of his hand, slammed the door and walked away. Because I don’t want my pastor, Reverend Harlan Steffen, who is also my daughter’s father-in-law, to know how much I lost my temper, I won’t tell you what I called the driver during our struggle over the clothes and computer in my pack. I have had at least two other major shouting matches with drivers and lots of little ones.
Marshrutkas, the Russian name for minibuses, are the most common form of transportation in Sheki and most towns. They are like our church vans. They cost 20 gepik (25 cents) to ride in town. The majority of them are dirty and you don’t want to look too closely at the stained and thread-bare seats, but then I sat in some gum one time, so a cursory glance is important. Although town marshruts or shruts, for short, are designed for about 11 people to sit in, I have seen loads of at least 28 in them. Old people and women are offered seats, so I am offered seats because of my age and gray hair, but, because of my ego, I seldom take them if offered by a man or female. I will take a seat, though, from a squirmy little boy. My ego trumps my age. If you’re standing, a hanim, married women, will pull any package from your hand and hold it in her lap until you get off the marshrut. Before I knew this was a custom, I had a tugging match with a sweet older lady who grabbed my shopping bag out of my hand.
Standing is uncomfortable due to low rooflines. In the summer it is embarrassing for me to watch my sweat dripping onto a fellow passenger because most times I have to bend my head over someone. In the winter it is my cold and runny nose, which I watched one time as it deposited drops onto the back of an immaculate leather coat of a seated lady. Because the marshrut drivers drive in town so erratically--dodging potholes, parked cars, cows, and cars passing in no passing zones--I am usually holding onto a seat back with one hand and a handle above a window at the same time, which doesn’t allow me to press a hankie to my runny nose. People in Azerbaijan don’t blow their noses, so clearing out the pipes before getting into a shrut would be a big public faux pas.
Marshruts also travel between towns, but you will be cramped in with 15 or more people, along with deliveries: groceries, a keg of beer, a box of chickens or several 50-pound sacks of potatoes. People in Azerbaijan think that cold drinks and cold air make them ill, so it is a very hot ride through the desert to Baku during the summer when you are hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder with fellow passengers for six hours and they won’t leave the windows open. The Turkish music also may be blaring during the entire trip. That doesn’t necessarily keep people awake on a six-hour ride, so you may turn your head and be nostril to nostril with a gaping, snoring mouth or feel someone’s head on your shoulder. When that happens, I try not to think about drool.
The roads are often under reconstruction or just full of potholes; they wind through hairpin turns up and over mountains; drivers want to pass every vehicle they can; and wandering animals must be avoided, so there is no such thing as driving in a smooth, straight line. These things make “car sickness” prevalent among younger travelers, but I won’t go into details.
One cold and blustery morning and too early for buses to be running, a Baku marshrutka driver lured me into his vehicle with the promise that he was going to Sheki. He charged me 20 manat then dropped me off in a strange town in the middle of a snow storm. I had no idea where I was. That was scary! Luckily, the same thing was done to a Russian on the minibus, so after a half hour outside in the cold, he talked a man into driving us to Sheki for 22 manat each. My entire trip from Baku to Sheki that day cost me about 50 dollars. Considering that Peace Corps provides us about four dollars a day for walking-around money and about 10 per diem when we are in Baku, 50 dollars wiped out a good chunk of that month’s allowance.
Nice, comfortable busses travel between major cities and old, rusty Russian busses shuttle people between rayown (regional) centers and villages. The village busses smoke, are dirty, show a lot of rust and sound like they are falling apart. Some of my Azeri friends who live in the villages won’t travel on the village busses because they don’t want to ruin their reputation. So they share a taxi ride with a village driver. I only used a village bus once and it was a cultural experience. The people from the village packed it and their food and live fowl from the bazaar into the bus and we chugged uphill to Bash Zayzedt to visit one of my Peace Corps friends stationed there. They were thrilled that an Americans was on the bus and especially thrilled that I was going to visit their out-of-the-way but picturesque village. They asked me a million questions, which I tried to answer with my limited Azeri.
On a youth outing to Ganja, the bus I was on started to choke, spit, cough and sputter. The driver stopped a couple of times to check out the problem before the engine just gave out all together with a “ghush.” When I finally went back to join the dozen “expert” mechanics standing and looking at the rear engine, I pointed to the alternator several times. They shook their heads and assured me that there was no electrical problem. We were out in the middle of the desert and spent a hour in the heat before someone from a nearby village came out and fixed the alternator. Our kids whiled away the time playing soccer with a two-liter plastic pop bottle. Warily but wisely, we took a marshrutka back to Sheki.
In Baku there are lots of marshruts, but almost as many busses. I like the busses better because they are cleaner and there is more of a chance to sit down. There are some hazards, though. One day I jumped onto a bus from the American Councils Office headed to Bakhsovet in Baku and started to sit. Two men yelled at me. I looked down to see vomit on the seat and the floor. I took another seat, nodded at the men and said, “Sagh ol,” thank you. No one did anything about the mess and another person came in and was again warned against sitting there. The third person was too fast and dropped onto the seat, popped up again, felt the seat of his pants with his hand, which was a bad idea, then jumped back off the bus. I fished through my pack and found a piece of paper that I took to the seat and stuck to the mess as a warning so that I would not have to watch another victim ruin his/her day.
The cost of a bus ride in Baku is 20 gepik, and from Sheki to the bus station in Baku it has gone from 6 to 7 manat since I have been in country. Baku marshrutka rides are also 20 gepik.
I love riding through one Azerbaijan district between Yevlak and Xaldan, because it is full of motorcycle sidecars. Almost all of them have the sidecar removed and replaced with a small bed to transport produce to market, lumber to a building site or groceries home. The motorcycles look like they are left over from WW II or at least the late fifties. I haven’t seen those anywhere else in my travels around Azerbaijan.
Three-wheeled vehicles that are motor scooters in the front and tiny truck beds in the back hang around the Sheki bazaar. They look like the one-cylinder motorized rickshaw-type taxis Karl Kieper and I rode in when we toured Thailand, where they are called tuk-tuks because of the tinny sound they make. In Sheki they are called tur-turs. The tur-turs can be hired to haul small loads from the bazaar to buyers’ homes while the buyers ride back home in a marshrut.
That leaves me the night train from Sheki to Baku to discuss. It actually starts in Balakan, then goes past Zagatala and Gax. There is also a train from Baku to Tbilisi. I have wanted to take the train or bus to visit Georgia; now I can’t. Since Russia has been bombing the country, Peace Corps has removed all the volunteers serving there and has made it off limits to all of us in Azerbaijan. It’s the closest country to us that we are normally allowed to visit with ease—Russia is one border, Iran another and Armenia yet another. We can travel to Russia, but visas are hard to get and expensive, Iran is off limits because we don’t have an embassy there, and Armenia and Azerbaijan have an uneasy truce in a more-than-decade-old war, with Armenia occupying a large chunk of Azerbaijan with troops faced off in the region.
Anyway, sitemates Judy, Joe and I decided to take the night train in the heat of August from Sheki to Baku to attend our mid-service conference. The train station is about nine kilometers outside of town, so we shared a taxi. We arrived at the gatar vagzal (train station) early so that we could get tickets for a Kupe (four-person room with bunk beds), but they were all booked and we ended up in Plastkart, which has bunk beds arranged in a cubicle and another bunk bed in the hallway. I think there were nine cubicles, so that made 54 people in our train car. The cost for the train was only 4 dollars, but with a taxi to the station near Sheki and from the Baku station to the hotel, it came out to about the same price as traveling by bus or marshrutka.
There was also a box of chickens under someone’s bunk, because quick stops by the train riled them up twice, and it took several minutes each time for the cackling to subside. I was lucky to get a top bunk with a small window. The air was flowing over me nicely for a hour, then the train somehow went backward the rest of the time, so Judy get MY air for the rest of the 10-hour ride. Most of the trip was through the desert, so even the breeze through the window was often warm. Joe was in the bunk below Judy, so he had no air, or bad air—stinky feet, sweaty underarms, dusty chickens, and no relief from the bathroom smells.
Although there was plenty of cell phone ringing, baby crying, coughing, talking, snoring, laughing and shuffling to filthy toilets at the end of our car, I did sleep for about six of the hours.
If it could be any consolation, I kept thinking that most of the several billion people in the world have far worse public transportation than I was experiencing. Even in America I wish we had better public transportation. When I was a boy a clean, safe Trailways or Greyhound bus stopped at our little town in Indiana everyday to deliver Indianapolis newspapers and to pick up and drop off travelers. Older citizens of Kosciusko County probably remember their parents talking about the interurban trains that connected most towns in Indiana. Right-a-ways are still visible between Warsaw and Milford. Public transportation costs a small percentage of what we have to spend to make car payments on the principal and interest, pay for insurance, buy high-priced gas and oil, make repairs and watch our hefty investment depreciate the second we drive a car out of the dealership.
Living and traveling in a second- or third-world country is a humbling experience after owning and driving your own car, but it is closer to what the vast majority of citizens of the world experience everyday. So it’s good for me to understand the West’s place in the world’s economic and social strata. It makes me realize how spoiled I am and how “rich” most people in America are. It also reminds me of my good luck having been born in a Western culture and my responsibilities to my “brothers and sisters’ in every country.

Hiking Above the Clouds in the Caucasus Mountains

What is more awe inspiring that a view from the top of a mountain? And the panorama is made more spectacular if it is hard won—a many-hour hike at altitudes and on terrain where the air is thin and the grade is steep.
My friends know my passion for hiking. Just ask Karl, Ryan and Carol Keiper, Jim Jaques, Curt Richcreek, Jim Hite, Tim Stiffler or Jim Alford, people I have backpacked with. So, now that I am living on the side of one of the mountains of the Caucasus Mountains (Qafqaz Daglari in the language of Azerbaijan) where I am serving in the Peace Corps, each morning I feel the lure of the peaks.
Early in my stay in Sheki, a fellow PCV, Joe, and I hiked up the mountain on which I live until we reached a ridge where we could peer down into the valley settlement where he lives and serves, Bash Zeyzedt. Charlie, Nick, Joe and I have also made forays up Khan Yaylaqi (the king’s summer pasture). One picture included with this article was taken by Emily when Nick, her husband, Joe and I made a three-hour hike to its summit.
It was an overcast day, but the views were breathtaking. That was because we had clouds above and others hanging in the valleys all around us. Every second, aided by different currents, we were afforded another view to oooh and aaah about.
We looked down through breaks in the clouds on Sheki, the town where Emily, Nick and I live, and on Kish, a village across the Kish Valley toward the Republic of Georgia. No one was on the top of the mountain with us, so we sprawled on the grass to eat cheese, bread, Snickers, cookies, pretzels and apples.
Although we were only a few hundred yards above tree line, we felt we were the highest things in the world, which, considering the curvature of the earth, we probably were. The layers and layers of the Caucasus Mountains went on seemingly forever. The most distant peaks were probably in the Russian Federation of Dagestan, literally, land of mountains.
Once we got above tree line, we understood how the peak got its name, because the wooded area then the scrub brush thinned out until there was only lush grass carpeting the summit. Surprisingly, the “pasture” appeared to be yet untouched by the herds of goats, sheep, cows and mules that are daily sights grazing in the parks and along the streets of Sheki.
The air was fresh and cool, so after dissipating the heat we had produced during the last push to the top, we donned windbreakers, jackets and sweatshirts to reduce the chill of evaporating perspiration.
There is something magical and metaphysical about being in the mountains, away from the routine of our everyday lives, looking down on house roofs that appear as tiny golden tiles on the landscape, and not being able to pick out even the slightest movement of the largest vehicles scurrying around in the world below.
You feel godlike at times and then, when you look at range after range of mountains free of human habitation, you feel small, even microscopic, as when you look at a black, night sky filled with millions of suns.
The mountains are full of wolves, so they say, and when I have hiked toward the peaks I have heard canine pups yapping, which I assume are the adult wolves’ progeny. People from Sheki have warned us about the Caucasus brown bear when we have asked about good hikes. Kids who sometimes have followed us a little way up the mountains always turn back and motion for us not to continue, all the while gesturing menacingly with raised “paws,” growling in imitation and excitedly yelling ayilar, ayilar (bears, bears).
We assumed this a mountain legend until Joe on a solo hike met one on the trail. He described it as a large grizzly-like creature. According to his story, the bear was slightly more scared than he was and turned tail first. Ever since, PCVs have razzed Joe about not having the presence of mind to snap a tale-confirming photo, but he said that taking pictures was the last thing on his mind. Running was the first.
After our picnic, Emily, Nick, Joe and I walked another three hours to the bottom of Khan Yaylaqi. Descending is often harder on the body than climbing-- straining knee joints and wearing blisters on toes. But for the rest of the day we felt a catharsis, a physical and spiritual cleansing, accompanied by a supernatural energy that lasted till we went our separate ways and dropped into a muscle-relaxing slumber inside our warm sleeping bags in our own Azeri residences.
In September of 2007, when I first looked up at Khan Yaylaqi on a visit to my future PCV site, I vowed that I would climb to the peak. So, when I began living in Sheki, every morning that it was clear I stepped from my room, raised my eyes to the summit and dreamed of standing on top. The morning after the hike, Khan Yaylaqi didn’t hold the same attraction as it had when I first viewed its grandeur nine months earlier. It made me a little melancholy, but later in the day--from a different viewpoint of the distant snowcapped peaks of the Caucasuses--I stood looking and dreaming anew.


FLEX Assistant Teachers with me at party


With Nick and Emily

The Ninth Largest Country in the World

From Sheki to Baku to Tashkent to Almaty. It was my first trip out of Azerbaijan, where I am a Peace Corps volunteer, in nine months. I was looking forward to the opportunity to travel, but during the past months Sheki and Azerbaijan had begun to feel like home. I had good friends, my work at the college and my special haunts—I was finally relatively comfortable and secure. So I was a little apprehensive about my travel plans. I knew the monetary units would be different, as well as the dialect and culture. The population of Kazakhstan is more than fifty percent oriental, so the general population looked strikingly different. They are beautiful people.
Since in transit from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan I had eaten at the restaurant at the Tashkent, Uzbekistan, airport then spent the night on an airport bench, by the time I got to the conference hotel in Almaty I had four different countries’ currencies in my wallet. When I started to pay for something at a shop in Almaty, I slapped down a 200-unit Uzbek bill and the poor saleslady just looked at me puzzled. I was puzzled too, but I finally shuffled through my American dollars, Azeri manats and Kazakh tenges to find the correct amount.
The Kazakh language is Turkic, so I thought I would be able to communicate with my limited Azeri, also a Turkic language. Well, most of the people speak Russian. Almaty is also called Alma-Ata, which I recognized as apple-father in Turkic. Almaty is known for its many apple trees. Some of my Azeri worked and other times locals just looked at me. Even in Azerbaijan many Russian terms are used; for example, there are marshrutka (minibus), pomidor (tomato) and salfetka (napkin).
Almaty is across the Caspian Sea, the largest lake in the world. I guess it is called a sea because it is salty, but since it is landlocked it is officially a lake. Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world. Almaty isn’t on the western edge of Kazakhstan, which would make it relatively close to Baku, Azerbaijan; rather it is nearer to the southeastern Kazakhstan borders, close to China and just above Kyrgyzstan.
I was traveling to Almaty because I had applied and been accepted to be a FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange) orientation teacher for Azerbaijani high school students traveling to America for the 2008-09 school year. The program is administered by American Councils, and the training for Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan is conducted in Almaty. The pre-departure orientations, though, will take place in each country during late June and early July, just before the students leave for America.
Denise, from Connecticut, was traveling from Baku with me, not to be an orientation teacher but to prepare to run her own pre-departure orientation programs in Moscow as a new FLEX hub director. She had been working as a FLEX recruiter in Azerbaijan.
The adult teachers, chosen from expats (Americans such as me) living in their respective countries, will be assisted by FLEX alumni. At least two teachers and two former FLEX students conduct the orientation with FLEX directors overseeing the four-day events in each country. So the Almaty training sessions included an amazing group of 18 and 19-year-old FLEX alumni from the five nations. They are called TAs, teaching assistants.
Since the FLEX program only sends about 50 students a year from each of the smaller countries, and winning a FLEX scholarship to American is a long and rigorous process, FLEX students are exceptional individuals. So the two students chosen from each country to be TAs from this elite group of FLEX alumni were the best of the best.
We all worked hard preparing props, flip charts, skits and other material for our practice presentations in front of other trainees. It wasn’t all hard work, though, because one night we had an hilarious skit performed by the FLEX alumni called the American Dream, which portrayed a rich and generous American family with large rooms, an indoor pool, a dozen cars, unlimited credit card use followed by the representation of mean and stingy hosts that made the FLEX student do awful cleaning chores and sleep in a closet. There was also a lot of food and disco. Since I had embarrassed myself several times at Azerbaijan events that had men dancing together and women separately, I decided to become the de facto photographer. Most of the American adults and the FLEX students who were used to American ways all danced together, which I had trouble readjusting to.
When FLEX students return from America they are required to be leaders in their communities--starting English-conversation clubs, organizing community cleanups, giving presentations about America, and participating in other volunteer activities.
One FLEX alumnus, Roman, at 19, had his projects in Uralsk, a large Kazakh city near the Russian border. He was regularly featured on local television. He was studying classical piano at university and running an American Corner, where locals could learn about the United States, practice their English and organize volunteer projects.
Ksenya, who is 18, was also in university and working at the Almaty American Councils office. Roman, pronounced, Rah-muhn, and Ksenya (Kuh-sen-yuh) had participated in other world youth programs in Brussels, Belgium, and India. They were applying for an upcoming conference in Mexico. They are amazing people and unbelievably mature for teenagers. When I visited the Almaty American Councils office before I left Kazakhstan, Ksenya was in charge of a meeting of Kazakh FLEX alumni in the conference room. Since Ksenya and I had team-taught a practice session, we had become quick friends, so she drug me into the conference room to introduce me to her Kazakh friends and colleagues.
Roman was planning to fly back to Uralsk and was going to play piano and speak at a conference the day after he returned. Then the next day he had to conduct a two-hour American Corner meeting.
Some of the countries represented at the training conference have cosmopolitan cities--with western malls, high-rise buildings and a variety of ethnic restaurants--but when you get into the countryside you may still find abject poverty. People may haul produce with carts and donkeys, sleep four or five people to a bedroom, and have outside pit toilets, wood stoves for heating and cooking, and no potable running water on their property.
The mountain areas in these countries are spectacular—Kazakhstan’s tallest peak is 20,000 feet high—and there are temperate growing zones, but most of the land is arid and sparsely populated. Although Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, it only has approximately 15 million people. China next door has more than 1.5 billion. That’s 100 times the number of people on only 3.5 times the land area.
The view from my hotel room balcony was of the snowcapped peaks of the long Alatau section of the Tian Shan range that separates Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan.
Roman gave me a tour of Almaty monuments, parks, malls, and landmarks. The Orthodox Church was magnificent, a touch of both the Moscow Kremlin and American big-city churches. Since I was in the city, Roman, Denise and I ate at Dominoes Pizza, and I followed that with some caramel ripple Baskin-Robbins ice cream. I told Roman that I wanted some of my Uncle Baskin’s products. For lunch the next day we ate at a Kazakh restaurant. The food was good, but don’t ask me to name the dishes. The drink, I know, was peach nectar.
After Roman left for Uralsk, Tim, an American who was the Almaty FLEX hub director, drove me up into the mountains to see the site of the next Asian winter games, then we ate at an Indian/Thai/Chinese restaurant in the city. We chose curry dishes and garlic nan. His long-time girlfriend was Russia and worked for the British Council in Almaty, so we talked a lot of Eurasian politics—well, with my limited knowledge, I guess I listened more than I talked. Although they are in their twenties, they knew Eurasia well and had had lots of experiences.
My stay in Almaty was unbelievable, but I was glad to get back to my rooms in Sheki, Azerbaijan currency, a language I could function in somewhat, my Peace Corps site mates, my Azeri friends, and my own bed.

New Year, Equinox, Spring Holiday

Happy Novruz: Azeris Celebrate a New Growing Season

March 18, Tuesday
I can see the fires burning on the mountainside and smell them as the cold air from the peaks drops toward the Kish Valley and the center of the town of Sheki, bringing the smoke with it. Firecrackers are being set off around our house.
When I was walking home from the college, neighborhood children were already tossing their hats in front of gates, where they were being filled with dried fruit, nuts, small coins and sweets.
People are in the holiday spirit in Sheki, Azerbaijan, where I am serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. A friend in the neighborhood was waiting for me outside a chayxana, teahouse, near the college. He shook my hand and kissed me on the cheek, a typical greeting between men or between women, then invited me to come in for coffee. We played dominoes, talked a little Pidgin English with an older gentleman who said he had worked and lived in Russia for 30 years, and I met others who hang out at the establishment.
While I am typing this, I am eating yeddi something. Yeddi means seven, and my host sister, Ferdana, explained that it was made of seven fruits and nuts with colored boiled eggs on top. I recognize the peanuts, white raisins and pistachio, chick peas but the rest of it is a mystery—probably dates, figs and roasted wheat.
As I left the kitchen after dinner this evening, Ferdana held up a blue egg in one hand and a red egg in the other and said we would eat them tomorrow morning.
The occasion is Novruz bayram, the biggest holiday in Azerbaijan, and also celebrated in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. Novruz in Farsi means “new day.” Bayram means holiday. The week of celebration appropriately includes the first day of spring, March 21, which is the vernal equinox. The joy comes from the warm breezes, violets in bloom and the feeling that “we made it through another winter.”
A plate of three-inch-high wheat sprouts, called semini, adorns tables, desks and windowsills in most homes and businesses. Of course, wheat is ground into flour and flour is baked into bread, which is sacred to Azeris. The coming of spring signals that there will be food grown to fill summer, fall and winter tables.
Houses are cleaned and curtains washed. Men get fresh haircuts and all family members buy one new outfit to wear. Gardens are prepared and fruit trees are planted as part of the new hope brought by spring.
Tomorrow at the college a band will play, there will be dancing, and other activities will mark the occasion. Today, my Azeri teaching counterpart, Shabnam, invited me to spend Thursday with her family and to stay late enough to jump through the bonfire, which removes illness suffered during the winter months. She has a fiancé that lives in Baku, a college-age sister that I have met, a brother and a mother, but I’m not sure who all will be there. I do know there will be too much food and lots of visiting, which they call guesting. Azeris are known for their hospitality.
“What we have today as Novruz has been celebrated for at least 3000 years and is deeply rooted in the traditions of Zoroastrian belief system,” states a document sent to us by the Peace Corps Office in Baku. It is obviously an important fertility and renewal holiday, just as is our Easter, a celebration that includes pagan beliefs about colored eggs and rabbits, left over from traditions of the ancient Druids, and Christians’ reverence for the resurrection of Jesus two thousand years ago.
I am currently looking over the top of my computer, through my window and over the neighbor’s high stone wall and see a bonfire starting. I’m sure members of that family will be jumping it later tonight, just as the other fires I see at houses up the mountain will also be part of the season’s rituals and fun.

March 20, Thursday
Yesterday was a day of friendship and food at the college. It started at about 10 am with music and traditional dancing in the courtyard between the two buildings. Students in ethnic costumes performed skits and made speeches. One character had on a long white beard and a dunce hat, and I think he represented the past year (like Old Man Time) and was being thrown out by those representing the new growing season.
I mistakenly went home for lunch, not realizing that the teacher party at 2 pm would be a meal. I was thinking tea and pastries. When I went back to the college, tables were set up in the courtyard of the main building, and women sat together and men sat together. The band from the morning was at one end.
Not knowing about the seating, I ended up at the director’s table. We were in the sun, but since there was a nice breeze and we are part way up the valley, we were still cool, until the dancing started.
After some music and the eating of lamb, chicken, capital salad, radishes, green onions, cilantro, bread, a type of slaw with beets, sparkling water, peach nectar and orange Fanta, the director made a speech. Then he came and asked me to dance.
We danced and then other men joined us. Each of us had to dance in the middle of a circle of the men dancing. I kept trying to get out of the circle and sit down, but as soon as I did another man started to dance with me and I was back on the flagstone of the courtyard.
The traditional Azeri dance is much like are solo-dancing step in America, but with a little more flare. The hands are held out straight from the shoulders and they are pointed down and then up. Luckily I snuck over to my seat before the music went to double time and the quick and really men’s fancy dancing began.
Some of the music reminds me of Irish gigs and reels but with a more high-pitched sound. Between music, the faculty had an opportunity to win prizes if they could recite poems, sing an Azeri song or give correct answers to questions about history and sports.
The women danced during some of the songs, and on one occasion the men and the women danced at the same time but in different parts of the courtyard. I only saw one woman come over and dance with the men.
The food was excellent, and so was the camaraderie. I was jokingly asked if I wanted to take another wife while I was here. I laughed, they laughed, and I said that one wife was more than I could handle. Polygamy is illegal here just as it is in the USA.
After the party I went back home again, then went to town at 7 to meet three of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers for our weekly Christian book club and dinner at a Western-style hotel. It was my fourth meal of the day, but, though I generally like the Azeri food I get, my weekly hamburger and fries at the hotel are not to be missed. As I walked back up the mountain through town, I noticed one giant bonfire between apartment buildings that was surrounded by men. I’m sure the men were going to jump through it after it died down a lot.
When I got to my house, my host mother was outside making lamb kabobs on a small grill. Of course, I had to eat one. It was excellent, and I love lamb, but I didn’t stay for my fifth meal of the day. I was ready to let my stomach rest, read and go to bed.
They tell me today is the official holiday, and I am going to Shabnam’s family’s house for dinner and bonfire jumping tonight. Just took a splash shower, since the shower head has not been fixed from being frozen and blown off during the winter.
Fireworks are being set off in one of the courtyards below me as I sit here, and it is upsetting the lone morning dove that is moving back and forth from the pomegranate tree to my railing. Wrong, I now see there is a pair of doves.
Breakfast was tea, paklava (baklava), and other fancy pastries. One is a half moon shape filled with ground nuts, sugar and a spice. Another one looks like a plant that my wife calls hens and chicks, or something like that, back in Indiana.
There are low clouds behind the houses and mountain across the valley from my house. The rest of the sky is crystal clear today. I am finally getting a little of the morning sun through my window that faces the northeast.
I just got a text message from American Councils (AC) in Baku. I am supposed to teach orientation classes for Azeri exchange students to the United States this summer for AC. I am scheduled to go to Kazakhstan for training next month, but they are having trouble getting my visa from the Kazakhstan Embassy. Also, my original flight was canceled, and now I have a 10-hour layover in Uzbekistan. Things always seem more complicated than they need to be. I have already filled out an application, sent my passport and pictures, etc., but the Kazakhstan Embassy says that the application was the old form.

March 21, Friday
Yesterday after breakfast I spent most of the morning trying to scan and email my new Kazakhstan visa application to American Councils. Nothing is easy it seems. I did receive a free ride in a friend’s taxi to the bus stop, though, then as I was waiting for a marshrutka, the director of the college drove by and picked me up and dropped me off at the Pocta, post office. The Internet café next door to it had a terrible scanner so I went to another one and they told me “scanner yoxdur,” no scanner, but go to the shechil shop, photo store. The owner recognized me from my students’ photographs they had processed there and did the scanning for free. “Novruz Mubarek,” I said, Happy Novruz. Friendly people can make things easy.
I was supposed to meet Shabnam at 2, so I had an hour to kill. Before the taxi picked me up this morning, the local postman had handed me my bimonthly PC mailing, which contained two international Newweeks and PC announcements. I went to the hotel. Shabnam texted that she would meet me at three instead or two, so I caught a marshrutka back up the mountain and did some reading.
As I was going back down the mountain at about 2:45, I snapped pictures from the marshrutka window of a horse troop with riders in traditional costumes parading up the street to the Khan Saray Palace. Then I bought a box of candy for Shabnam’s family, and she and her brother met me at 3. She wanted to buy shoes so we walked toward the shoe store. In front of the legitimate theater the city was conducting a festival for kids. I took pictures of Azeri traditional instruments, costumes and displays while Shabnam went on down the street to the shoe store and her brother went to an aptek, drug store.
We caught a marshrutka back up the hill to another section of town. Sheki people are very provincial and asked Shabnam a hundred questions about who I was, what I was doing there, who she was, and what she was doing in town. She doesn’t like this, but Sheki has an open, friendly, small-town and neighborly mentality. People will look over my shoulder at the ATM, ask very personal questions, look into my sack, ask where I’m going, and pose other questions without even thinking about it. I’ve started to pick up these habits, and I catch myself looking into someone’s shopping bag.
When we reached the house, I met the mother, got reacquainted with the sister, who had visited Shabnam and my classes, and played with their dog and chickens. Nijat, the brother, loves to put the roosters together and watch them spar. Luckily they have no spurs, so it is harmless combat.
We sat in the dining room and Shabnam tried to get me to eat all the food she could. There were several kinds of homemade pastries, commercial pastries, a plate of the seven-something nuts and dried fruit, tea, black raspberry jam, (which they eat with a spoon before taking a sip of tea), compot or sok (which is homemade juice with the fruit still in it), apples, mandarins, etc. Shabnam says she is skinny, the sister is of normal size, but they ate very little of the sweets. Most of the unmarried girls are skinny. Married women are another story.
The sister is a student majoring in Azeri language and literature at Sheki University, and Nijat is a student of petroleum engineering at the Neft Technical University in Baku. Neft means oil.
We walked around the small garden and talked about the fruit and nut trees. The property is a rental, but the father, who works in Baku, is building a house in Sheki. Shabnam’s future father-in-law is building a small house for her and her fiancé in Baku. Shabnam is getting married in June. Her future husband works as a bill collector for the electric company in Baku. She says he works seven days a week from 7 in the morning till 9 at night. He gets one day a month off.
The Novruz dinner was the national meal of plov (pronounced plove) or ash (aaahsh), which is rice with chicken and colored with saffron from their garden. It is served with chicken. There was also a vegetable dish with lamb. The lamb in Azerbaijan is delicious. It is a white meat that is very moist and tender.
The plov is cooked in a pan that has dough pressed into the bottom. The resulting pastry is served on top of the bowl of rice. Some plov has the meat in it, but the plov we had yesterday had the chicken served on the side. The broth was poured over the rice from a small pitcher, like a gravy bowl. No alcohol was served, since the family is strict Muslim. Shabnam says prayers five times a day.
After dinner and a glass of hot tea, Nijat was unable to wait any longer to make the Novruz bonfire. We went outside and watched it burn. The moon was almost full, and it was a clear night, so it was beautiful outside. It was also mild and pleasant. After the fire died down a little, we started asking that our troubles of the past year drop into the fire as we jumped it. I tried to take pictures from the side of them jumping, but the flash would go off late and I would just get a picture of the fire. I finally took the pictures head on and at least got some interesting shots.
Bonfires are jumped on the four Wednesday leading up to the vernal equinox. Each Wednesday represents one of the elements: earth, water, wind and fire.
The dog had been hiding since we started the fire, but Nijat found him and even jumped the fire with him in his arms. Nijat landed in the coals at the edge of the fire once and walked around with sparks coming off one of his shoes. I noticed that, when I jumped, the fire warmed my pants more than I expected. We finally persuaded Shabnam to jump, then she got giggling and I took pictures of all three of them jumping. The mother watched from the stoop.
We saw a bright light over the wall and heard music, so we went to see the neighborhood bonfire. Of course, as a foreigner, I was mobbed, which I am used to. I just said, Salam Alechum, ne var ne yox, nejesen, Novruz mubarek, senin adin nadir and other phrases in Azeri and then in English, hello, what’s new, how are you, happy holidays, what is your name, etc. Only men and boys were around the fire. Shabnam and her sister stood at the street corner and watched us.
When we returned to their house I said I needed to go back up to my house, so I thanked them, said my goodbyes, wished everyone a happy holiday, told Shabnam to have a good time in Baku for the next five days, then Nijat walked with me until I recognized the streets. We said goodbye and I strolled on down and into the merkezi, center of town. There are seldom street signs, and the cobblestone roadways meander all over the valley and foothills, so I was glad Nijat had accompanied me.
When I reached the walking street beside the central park, it was full of people and a band was playing. Kids were still jumping a bonfire there. I had to cut through the park to get to the main street up the hill because the crowd had the walking street completely blocked.
With the almost-full moon and the warm night, the walk up the hill was very pleasant, except I was wet with sweat by the time I got home. I only was hit up for money by a small boy with his knit hat held out once. I dropped a few coins in his hat and said Novruz Mubarek.
My family members always ask who is there when I knock at my locked gate at night. So I said, “Novruz Mubarek; Menim adim Shackta Babadir.” When Ferdana opened the gate she laughed at my joke, because Shackta Baba is Grandfather Frost, who is the Azeri equivalent of Santa Claus.

January Update

The Tin Man of Sheki

“Salam alechem. Olar?” Hello. May I? I ask, as I hold up my camera.
“Beli, beli.” Yes, yes is the hat maker’s response.
I wave him over to the display of hats in front of his shop, which is a little more than a shack. He goes one step further than just posing with his wares and takes off his flat hat and puts on one of his fur hats. Snap. Snap. I can’t believe my luck!
“Sagh ol. Chok sagh ol.” Thanks. Thanks very much, I say as I wave and leave.
I love to see craftsmen, especially people making items you see in use every day. Back home we are isolated from the manufacture of so many common items because they are mass produced, often in foreign factories.
The hat maker in his work apron makes fur caps, both the ones shaped like a hatbox and the ones that look like grizzly bear fur. He also produces leather and fabric hats, both in the flat-hat style and the sea captain style. The most popular ones are the flat hats, which I wear, but the grizzly ones are the showiest. That’s why they are always prominently on display.
This hat maker plies his trade on one of my favorite back streets of Sheki, Azerbaijan, where I serve in the Peace Corps. Also on the street is a potter/cobbler. His pottery looks like terra cotta and is unglazed. Near the potter is a tinsmith, who makes metal peches. In Indiana we would call them six-sider heating stoves, meaning they are just boxes with a door and a hole for a stovepipe. I tell others he’s the Tin Man, but I don’t know whether he uses any tin or not. I would think steel would be more in order.
Peches are in all of my classrooms at the college where I work and in most homes. Many shops also have peches. When winter comes, the stoves come out of storage and a small window pane is removed and a metal replacement is installed. The metal has a hole for the stovepipe to go through. At the college where I teach a line of smoking stove pipes sticks out of the sides of both buildings.
Also on the “craft street” is a kitchen sink fabricator. The sinks are so small they look like toys. There is a little reservoir for water, a faucet, a small basin and a cabinet. They are usually very colorful.
One box maker is on a corner and another one is two workshops from the hat maker. Boxes are brightly painted. Many are made for brides and grooms, so they can have their names painted on them.
One shop produces metal bowls, which are common in kitchens. They remind me of the tops of cream separators in use when I was a kid.
Roof drip edges and downspouts are often decorative too. Some are metallic gargoyles. It’s fun to stop in one of the tin shops to watch the men work the metal. There is also a copper shop in town.
I had to use one of the town’s craftsmen today. A couple of days ago my host family broke the spigot off my Peace Corps-issue water filter. I’ve never seen it happen, but this is the fourth or fifth time. The spigots aren’t well made and I was tired of texting the medical officer and waiting for another one to be mailed from Baku. So I put the filter in a shopping bag, a large one, and headed for a metal shop and pech fabricator near the bazaar. The filter is made of stainless steel and looks, and is, about the size of an oil filter on a Mack truck.
We are required to have water filters because of the pollution in many parts of Azerbaijan. I read in National Geographic a few months ago that Sumgait, where I lived three months, was still on the top-ten list of most polluted cities in the world. Locals tell me Baku isn’t very healthy either.
Anyway, I had bought a stronger faucet that looks like a gas valve with shutoff lever, but its threaded end was too large for the hole in the filter. So I had the metal worker make it larger. If I had been at home I would have employed a grinding attachment on my drill or used a large drill bit to ream out the hole.
The man in the shop took a metal chisel and scored a circle around the existing hole and knocked out a ring. The heavy-duty faucet fit perfectly. While I was in the shop I watched two other men making parts for sheet metal peches. This was all done with hammers, bars, edges of metal tables, mandrels, etc. The sound was deafening. I didn’t see any electricity in use.
I enjoyed the trip to the metal shop, and I visit all the other shops too, but mostly just to admire master craftsmen at work. One shop nearer where I live makes small hammered metal boxes. I will probably buy one before I go home. He told me he will engrave names, dates and his name on the metal so that they are personalized. When I walk by his shop almost every day I can hear him inside tapping designs onto his creations. It’s a friendly sound, and I like knowing that there are everyday items that are still made by hand.

Winter Holiday Update

My So-Called Life in Sheki

The two rooms the Peace Corps rents for me in Sheki are a microcosm of Azerbaijan in that they exhibit all of its climatic zones. My bedroom was once a kitchen, so my brick cook stove/fireplace creates the tropics near the ten-foot ceiling. Next comes the subtropical zone, which I have to jump up and down to feel. The temperate zone is about head-to-belly button high, followed by the kneecap-high-to-the-floor cold zone. If I want to make a trek to the Polar Regions, I just open my door and enter my sitting room. I have taken to practicing a yogi position of standing on my head periodically in my bedroom so that my feet get thawed out and my head stops sweating.
I’ve noticed that my bed clothing styles have evolved here. I am now wearing a black, of course, knit hat, black stretchy gloves, two pairs of gray woolen socks, two T-shirts (one long-sleeved and tucked in) and flannel pajama bottoms. To add to this stylish look, I also tuck my PJs into the second pair of socks. Warning, if you want to avoid nightmares, try not to visualize anything I describe.
Speaking of yatmaq (sleeping), every man over 55 hears the call of nature several times during the night. Just ask my doctor or any member of the local male coffee klatch. Guess who wins and gets him up several times during the night? Anyway--since trips to the hamam2 in the dark of night require that I leave my Slumberjack womb, trudge through the polar zone and out into Sheki’s frigid mountain air, then climb up a winding set of cement steps--I have installed a urinal in my bedroom. It’s really a whittled-on, two-liter Sprite bottle. Aaaaah! Every bedchamber (bedroom), when my dad was a child and American toilets were mostly outside, sported a large crockery chamber pot under each bed—just for the same express purpose I use my Sprite bottle. You can still see them in antique shops. My dad called them thunder mugs for obvious reasons. For me it’s not back to the future, but forward to the past.
In an attempt to fit in and not suffer from the fishbowl syndrome, I bought a pair of Azeri dress shoes, black, of course. No, I didn’t get the exceedingly long pointy ones. Quit visualizing. I got the other kind, square, so now you can call me Sponge Joel Square Toes. I wore them once to the college, showed my counterpart and students, and left them in my polar room. The stone bruises I received from walking American style—fast and without caution--over my cobblestone streets in my Azeri shoes are still healing. My waffle-soled, clunky, brown (what!) Skechers attract daily glances and outright stares, but I don’t care until my soles and heels heal.
I feel a little embarrassed about this, because I see young women in high heels, even spiked heels, walking everyday on the same cobblestone with no problem. Some of the older women even wear those little sandal/slipper things with their bright pink and green flowery socks and scoot right along. Maybe I should buy some of those to wear to work.
My room resembles a farmer’s mudroom. Two walls have long nails holding up two Persian carpets. Each of these nails holds a piece of my clothing, except two, one has a clock on it and the other holds my PC issue smoke detector. As I write this, the following are hanging on the nails:
Nylon pants for wearing to and from the shower
Nylon pants for hiking, with rips from my last hike up my mountain with Joe, an ex-marine and current PCV
Robe and PJ bottoms
Nylon windbreaker and ball cap
T-Shirts I wear to bed
T-Shirt I wear back from the shower
T-Shirt I wear under my sweaters
Wet bath towel
Wet boxer shorts I just washed in the shower while taking a shower (I love killing two birds with one shower)
Polar Tec pullover
Nylon pants for wearing around town
Another nail near my door holds my belt, my cell phone charger cord, the USB I-Pod cord and the USB camera cord. The door knob has a pink and white striped plastic magazi (store) bag for trash and a pair of clean boxers on it.
My four bedposts double as knobs for my knit hat, my night gloves, night socks and a shoehorn I made from a one-liter Aqua Vita bottle. It works better that the real thing for putting on my Azeri shoes. The neck and cap are the handle and fit nicely over one bedpost.
My foot-deep window shelf looks like an aptek (drug store), with: Off, ibuprofen, vitamins, calcium pills, talcum powder, Colgate toothpaste and brush in a Mickey Mouse cup, Wet Wipes, Preferred Stock cologne, baby oil, Blistex, Speed Stick, toilet paper for blowing my nose, Binanca, paper towels, nail clippers, hair brush, comb, matches, and bottled water bottle (for in) and my Sprite bottle (for out). The trick is, in a senior moment or late-night daze, not to drink out of the wrong bottle.
I must also mention food. Three of my teaching days at the college consist of three hour-and-a-half classes back to back. I remind my host mother, who is younger than I am by about six years, that I need to eat before teaching from 1 to 6, five long hours. Several times, over to the table comes a bowl heaping with red beans cooked in that yellow-can fat--everybody here cooks with it-- and seasoned with garlic and onions. I always look up to see if I can catch a glimpse of a perverse grin on her face or a mischievous twinkle in her eyes as she places a fork into the mix. Nothing! She is such a sweet lady that I can’t imagine that she doesn’t know not to or intentionally does serve me gazli3 meals before I’m trapped in a small room with 22 or so people. The only sentences my students and counterparts can recite perfectly in English are the ones I’ve said so often: “I’ll be right back. Just need to check something in the hall.”
My Azeri is terrible for several reasons. I teach 16 and a half hours at the college, have a weekly conversation session at the university, conduct three conversation club sessions at the college, periodically make presentations at AZETA (Azerbaijan English Teachers Association) meetings, teach my “son” and “daughter” evenings, tutor a banker one evening, spend tons of hours every day preparing English lessons and occasionally teach the staff at the Saray Hotel. These are all in English, of course, and afford me scant chances to use Azeri.
Also, the proprietors of the 12 or so stores I regularly visit for drinks, school supplies, computer stuff, etc. remember what I bought the first time I visited the store. So Sevda at my local dukan grabs a Xirdalan beer if it is Friday after school, two rounds of bread if it is early morning any day, a bag of M&M Peanuts if it looks like I’m going to the theater or a Super Snicker bar if it is Saturday afternoon. The proprietor of the new store near the old bazaar yells out popcorn? even if I want a Mars bar. The lady in the Kur computer store just shakes her head and won’t let me get out the Azeri sentence I’ve practiced all the way down the mountain, because Kur never has whatever I have ordered for my printer, computer, etc., even though they’ve told me it would be in a week earlier.
Of course, I meet and eat with PCVs during the week and one night we amass for a study of a Christian book in English. So, when do I get to speak Azeri? With my host family? Even my host sister finishes my Azeri sentences before I can get to the verb, which is where I need the most practice, especially if it expresses the future tense (yeyeceyem for I will eat when eat is only ye). To offset the 70+ hours of preparing, socializing and teaching in English, I have a one-hour Azeri tutoring session each week. That’s not a good ratio.
I have found the bazaar to be my Spencer’s Gifts of Azerbaijan. Spencer’s is the place teens go to buy posters, gag gifts, mood lights for their bedrooms, puzzles and practical jokes. The jokes from the bazaar are always on me. I bought a pair of nice leather gloves. When I got home I noticed a hole in one of them. Ok, I can live with that. But the lining was out too, so the gloves on are colder than the gloves off. Ever sit on a leather sofa or car seat in the winter? By the way, girls in America who sit on leather during colder weather should be warned about the danger of freezing their ovaries, as girls so often are in Azerbaijan about sitting on cold benches or stone walls. This urban legend ranks right up there with the ones everyone here repeat to me about eating honey and melon, which will kill you, and drinking cold beverages, which will give you flu.
I also bought a sweater that had a bad seam, which I had to sew up in my bedroom. Another purchase was a mug. The first one I bought had a crack around the handle, which I knew would break off sometime when I was drinking scalding tea. Aha, I outsmarted the cup. So, I took it back and traded it for another one. The first time I used it my “sister” started laughing at me. I looked down and noticed dark blue sweet-tea spots making tracks up my light blue oxford dress shirt. I had bought the Azeri version of one of those infamous dribble glasses, or, in this case, mugs. The crack in it was almost invisible. I gave up and kept it to put pens and pencils in.
One of the house slippers I bought—which have “ship ship ship” stitched on them--came apart at a top seam. I repaired it. In Sumgait I had to sew up my sandals, which I had already taken back twice for exchange and repair and paid a local to repair once. So, if anyone wants to know what I do with my spare time………..I sew. And I’m thinking about taking up needlepoint.
Just so you don’t think I am not multi-talented, on slow evenings I can also entertain myself by deftly picking black, of course, woolen-sock dust-bunnies out of my Persian carpet. I am also adept at doing my calisthenics by flapping a bath towel or boxers a hundred times in my bedroom to circulate the warm air. Or I lay out my clothes for school the next day, trying to see how many shades of black, of course, navy blue or charcoal gray I can wear at one time. Men in Sheki seldom wear bright colors.
The fact is, though, I love Sheki. It is a photographer’s paradise. There are so may photo ops that things you would snap in an instant, if you saw then in American, go without being recorded here. The people are friendly, want to speak to me in English, want me to visit their homes, want me to join them at chayxana4 tables, invite me to sit with them at Chingiz Clubu movie theater, and greet me in English or Azeri as I pass their butcher shops, craft shops and stores. There are numerous back streets, mountains, museums, parks, cemeteries, mosques and other things begging to be explored by the curious.
I guess that’s why people from other parts of Azerbaijan, Asia and Europe visit Sheki to stay in the picturesque 19th century camel caravan tavern, visit Khan Palace, drive up the mountain to the two-century-old church in Kish and hike to the Gelersen-Gorersen tower that overlooks the Kish River and provides a soul-uplifting view of the towering snow-capped peaks of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. My so-called life isn’t too bad.

1Men’s clothing styles are most monochromatic.
2Hamam: bathroom
3 Bottled water is labeled as gazli, carbonated or gassy, or gazsiz, mineral water or gasless.
4chayxana-- chai (tea) and xana (house)

Daily Schedule

Typical DAILY Schedule
As of December 11, 2007

College English Class 1 ½ hours
College English Class 1 ½ hours
College Methods Class 1 ½ hours
Evening conversation session with businessman 1 ½ hours

College English Class 1 ½ hours
College English Class 1 ½ hours
Tutor two host family members

Conversation Club 1+ hours
Conversation Club 1+ hours
Occasionally conduct conversation sessions with Saray Hotel staff 2 hours
Christian book study and dinner with other PCVs.

Morning teaching session at university 1 ½ hours
College English Class 1 ½ hours
College English Class 1 ½ hours
College Methods Class 1 ½ hours
Tutor two host family members

Conversation Club 1+ hours
College English Class 1 ½ hours
College English Class 1 ½ hours
College Methods Class 1 ½ hours

Saturday AZETA (Azerbaijan English Teachers Association)
I have made presentations 5 times so far. 2 hours

My mornings are free except the day I travel across town to the university. Breakfast is at 8 or 8:30, then I prepare lessons, go to the center of town or to the bazaar to shop, check my email, do PC business with other volunteers or wash my clothes.

Weekends usually involve socializing with PCVs. This last weekend I stayed in most of the time because I had a bad cough and was losing my voice, but usually we hit some of the restaurants or meet at someone’s house for cards etc. Usually a PCV from another site is in town, so we get together for drinks or dinners. We had a pitch-in dinner for Josh as a going-away party, since he was moving to Zagatala. Two Azeri friends joined us PCVs for that at Josh’s place.

Each day, seven days a week, I spend from 2 to 4 hours preparing lessons. I also organize, type and see to the printing of the college newsletter I started. That is time consuming.

Recent highlights:

Fieldtrip: Last week Elnara and I took two of our classes to the local movie theater and had it show our English DVD copy of Sound of Music. Movies are shown using a DVD projector.

Saturday: I presented some teaching techniques at AZETA, and last Saturday I also had AZETA members participate in some of my exercises. Elnara helped with both sessions. Nick and Emily also helped on one exercise.

Newsletter: This week we are handing out our third college newsletter. It is four pages and on double-sized paper, so it looks more like a newsletter. Dwight just started helping with design and Josh has been an advisor from the beginning. Dwight is also training two students in layout and design.

Shopping Simulation: Elnara and I have a shopping simulation planned for Friday. Students have been bringing in empty product boxes, practicing shopping conversations, counting with play money, making signs, etc. I have invited PCVs and other English speakers to come to the college to act as shopkeepers and shoppers so that the students are required to use as much English as we can get them to.

University: I missed my session at the university this week because I was losing my voice and didn’t want to miss my afternoon college classes. Last week, though, I taught two Shakespeare sonnets and a Ben Jonson poem, all in English. It was fun for me--I love teaching literature--and I hope fun for the university students too.

Tutoring: I had my second Azeri tutoring session, and we spent time on everyday phrases that will help me with transportation, shopping, family life, etc.

Publishing: Another article about my PC experience in AZ was published in my local paper at home. It was the fifth one.

Goals: I see my weekly plan staying the same. I almost have too much planned each week already. My goals are to continue maintaining and improving all my current projects, thereby meeting PC objectives by contributing my time to the college, university, local businesses, my Azeri home and my American community.

School Life

November 16, 2007

Good Afternoon, Mr. Joel

I walk into the college classroom with my co-teacher and the students stand. We say, “Good afternoon, students.” They respond in unison, “Good afternoon, teachers.” My counterpart says, “Sit down.” The students take their seats. The same routine is taking place in every classroom of the Sheki Pedagogical Technicum, as the name implies, a teachers college in Sheki, Azerbaijan. My counterpart often says, “Good afternoon, children,” even though the students range in age from 17 to 30. Most are 19 or 20. If I say good afternoon separately, they respond with, “Good afternoon, Mr. Joel.” Most of the Peace Corps TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) Volunteers are addressed in the same manner.
Teachers and adults are often addressed by their first name followed by muellim (moo-el-eem), teacher, as a sign of respect. If they addressed me in that manner, it would translate as Joel Teacher. That seems awkward, so I have the students call me Mr. Joel.
The classes I participate in are all English language courses for future English teachers in Azerbaijan. Students in the afternoon are all in the English Department, and the morning classes are for students preparing to be elementary teachers. The college enrollment tops one thousand.
The entire college complex sits on approximately an acre and a half. It’s made up of two two-story buildings facing each other across a courtyard. The afternoon session starts with approximately 300 girls and 25 boys standing in the courtyard in the shape of a U, facing an administrator and a teacher. They sing the Azeri Nation Anthem. After that, the students head for classrooms and await their teachers.
The first couple of weeks were unusual for me, because I always started school with assigned classrooms at Wawasee High School. Here the students group by classes on their own and then search out a classroom. After that, one or two of them go to their teacher and escort him or her to the room. The rooms change from day to day until a routine is established.
I still don’t understand the process. I spent my first week at the college observing different teachers in order to choose two to work with. It felt awkward walking around the building looking for the teacher’s class. I’d ask where the classroom was and then ask where the students were. Both questions received the same answer from the teacher, “I don’t know. They will find me.”
It is November now and the classrooms are not heated and we seldom have electricity. One room is so dark I can read neither the black chalkboard nor the students’ written work. The only light into the room has to pass through the windows of a library that has outside windows, then through the windows between the library and the classroom. Most of my other classrooms have outside windows, but they are still dark. One dark day, my counterpart and I used a mini flashlight to check the students’ homework at their desks.
Even when there is electricity, the single light bulb in the center of each room doesn’t cast much light. Luckily, the rooms are narrow, which means no one is very far from some light. The down side is that there is no rearranging of furniture for group work or projects. Students and teachers wear jackets in the classrooms. I noticed last month that a dump truck load of split wood was delivered just behind the soccer field, which is situated at the end of one building but higher up the mountain. I assume that when it snows and is freezing outside, the wood will be brought to the classrooms, which have some kind of build-in fireplace that is covered now.
The wooden planks throughout the upper floors are worn by foot traffic as much as three-quarters of an inch below hundreds of hard knots and the giant nails that hold the planks in place. Many boards, especially on the narrow stairs, are patched with thin sheet metal. All the rooms have multiple doors to other rooms and the hallway, but the doors between rooms seem to be permanently locked.
Most rooms have no teacher’s desk, no wastebasket or typical classroom supplies, such as a stapler, ruler, tape, scissors, paper, a drawer, etc. Students often have to run down to the teacher workroom to grab a piece of chalk. There are no erasers, just foam pads, a cloth hanging on the blackboard or a beanbag-sized mini-pillow. I carry a stapler, tape, scissors, markers, paperclips and other supplies from class to class in a bag.
On the floor at the end of one hallway is a bust of former communist leader Vladimir Lenin. Part of his nose is missing and there is a damaged section on his forehead. There is a small gym with basketball hoops, but the only basketball I saw was so under inflated that it wouldn’t bounce. When I tried, the gym teacher just shook his head and indicated it wasn’t any good. The restrooms are reached by going outside to a separate building at the end of one of the main buildings. They feature pit toilets, no toilet paper, but a pitcher for washing instead of wiping. A faucet and a bar of soap are at a sink outside the restrooms.
Each building has what they call canteens, or cafes, and serve hot tea, pastries, candy and soft drinks. Most of the students and teachers like plain, sugarless pastries and tea. I sometimes change this up by getting a cookie and a Mountain Dew. They ask, “Is that cold? I can’t drink cold things.” Tea is brewing in every home, most stores and offices every day all day. Orange Fanta is popular everywhere in Azerbaijan. The common wisdom is that cold air and cold drinks make you sick. Wait till they visit America!
The thin plywood student desks are about four feet wide, with attached benches and backs. They have exposed carriage bolt heads and tons of student carvings. Students sit at least two and sometimes three to a desk. The seat and desk are situated so that it is almost impossible for a student to stand up straight as they recite. Students always stand when called on or someone enters the room. They don’t sit back down until told to. If a teacher forgets a stander while she is calling on another student to respond to the same question, a student may have to remain standing for five or ten minutes. Some rooms have three rows of desks, which leaves only about a foot to walk through and no aisle along the walls.
Students do most of the writing on and erasing of the board. Chalk dust is everywhere. Some of the boards are just painted black, and the chalk doesn’t work well on them. The walls of the old buildings are more than two feet thick, and there are usually windows that are broken. Some have been replaced with two panes butted together to form one window glazing.
Some of the classes I visited had no textbooks. One of my counterparts has an English textbook that the students use, but the directions are in Russian, which means it has been used for more than fifteen years, starting back when Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union. The other counterpart just lectures and the students copy down the information. There is no textbook. This teacher also uses no handouts. My other counterpart has a few copied handouts she uses.
I don’t see teachers giving quizzes or tests. Most of the work by teachers takes place in class, and they take no work home to grade. It may be different in grade and secondary schools. Many college and university teachers work mornings in a public school. Those schools often have two sessions: one starting at 8 a.m. and going to 12:30 or 1 p.m., and another going until 6:30 p.m. or so. The teachers also tutor students on Saturdays for the college graduation test. Teachers may be respected, but they don’t make much money, so they have to work long hours in the classroom.
I haven’t had to deal with many discipline problems, mostly because the students are older, chose to be in school, and are thrilled to have someone teach with techniques other than lecture and rote memory work. The students are used to prompting each other, so you can’t call on one student without a half dozen others mouthing the answer, whispering prompts to the student reciting or blatantly answering the question out loud. Even the teachers do this. When I want to listen to the one or two students who need their pronunciation corrected, sometimes I can’t hear them for the others saying the words. Teachers here don’t go sssssh; they rap on the desk with their knuckles or tap with their hard-soled shoes. The ladies wear heals, which work well for this. My first time using sssssh surprised me, because the students just ignored it. Then I rapped on the desk and they all got quiet.
Students are prone to pronounce V’s as W’s, I’s as ee’s, and uhs as any other vowel sound. Turkic languages don’t have a W, contain two I’s (one pronounced long E), several h sounds, one a fricative, and several G’s. They also have a C and S with tails, which represent our Ch and Sh sounds. Fit comes out feet; very, wary; vines, wines; sit, seat; and it, eat. On a side note, the word for dog is it, horse is at and meat is et.
Turkic languages also don’t have articles (the, a and an) and few prepositions. So sentences come out like this: “I went town and visited post office.” The verb always comes last in an Azeri sentence. So if I translate a sentence literally, it might sound like this in Azeri: “I tonight--hotel to--Charlie with—to eat—will go,” instead of, “Tonight I will to go to the hotel to eat with Charlie.” The prepositions they do have are often suffixes, hence “hotel to.”
Since Azeris don’t use gender pronouns (he, she and it), they constantly make humorous mistakes in English like: “My father loves her wife” or “His dress was long and blue.” Other typical problems arise from words that have similar meanings in English but are used for specific situations. For example we use tell, say and speak to mean slightly different things. One of my counterparts continually tells her English language classes, “Who can say me what this passage means.”
Periods in Azeri public schools last 40 or 45 minutes. At the college they are an hour and a half. Three of my classes meet only once a week, but the other two meet five times a week. With no A/V to speak of, 90 minutes is a long time period to fill. There is one student computer that I know of, but, with no electricity most of the time, it’s useless. So there are no PowerPoint, videos, CD, posters, or other aids to fill the time meaningfully.
Most of my students are girls. They typically have very long dark hair that they pull back with a clip. They dress very nicely, especially the first few days, then some hang up their beautiful, colorful dresses and wear more slacks and jeans. A visible gold tooth or two is common for the girls. Blonds and redheads are rare. The people in Sheki, which is close to the borders of Russia and the Georgian Republic, seem to me to have more of a European look, while the people in Sumgait, where I lived for three months, appeared more Persian, or Iranian. Dark skin, dark eyes and short statures are prevalent in all Azeri cities I have visited. The students come from all over Azerbaijan, but the majority of them are from the Sheki rayown (region) or surrounding regions.
I have only seen a couple of girls at the college that I would term over weight and no one that appears obese. No boy here is fat either. Once women marry, though, they often gain weight, a sign of prosperity.
Classes are interrupted all the time for everything. Administrators of different sorts walk in, students come and go, and nobody seems to mind. It’s just how they take care of school management documentation. I don’t like the interruptions but I am getting used to them.
Since there isn’t always electricity to ring the bells, classes often end when teachers look at their watches and say, “That is all. Goodbye, students.” In unison, the students then rise and say, “Goodbye, teacher.” Then the teacher leaves first.
Of course, everyone wants to talk to the American, because American culture is so well known and Azeris don’t get to rub elbows with Americans very often. So as I walk to and from classes, pass through the park on my way home or encounter students near the public square and central mosque in downtown Sheki, I hear a lot of: “Salaam Aleykum, Mr. Joel,” “Sagh ol, Mr. Joel,” “Hello, Mr. Joel,” or “Good afternoon, Mr. Joel.”

One of Joel's Classes

One of Joel's Classes
Mr. Joel and Mrs. Elnara in class.

Joel receives his site assignment.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Azerbaijani Village: Indiana in the 1950’s
By Joel Robbins

Two small cars can hardly pass on a crooked, narrow Azerbaijani village cobblestone or mud street. Walls extend right to the roads. Almost every property is surrounded by a stone or a solid metal barrier. Once in a while it’s just a wire fence. Drivers have to dodge cows, goats, sheep, mules, water buffalo, walkers and donkey carts. Most of Azerbaijan, where I am serving in the Peace Corps, is open range, so there are hundreds of thousands of shepherds outside all day tending their herds and flocks wherever there is grass, not only in rangeland, but also along village and town lanes and streets.
When I visit a student or friend in a village, I usually knock on the solid steel double gate, then open the small door in the gate, duck and step up and enter a garden. These doors are only a little over 5 feet high and often have a one-foot threshold. Visitors may have to scrape some of nature’s old-style fertilizer off their heels before entering the yard.
The Real Peace Corps
The Peace Corps Volunteers in Sheki, where I live and work, are regularly teased by the one PCV in a village near town. Joe says, “Sheki’s not the real Peace Corps. You ought to live in the village.”
We don’t necessarily agree with his assessment, because there’s not one “real” Peace Corps experience. There is, though, the long-held belief from 1960s PC stories that every PCV lives in a grass hut, eats beans, goat meat and rice twice a day, never washes, sleeps on a mat on a dirt floor, and is stationed in an African nation.
My son Mason had similar conditions during his PC tenure in Haiti eight years ago, and some of that style of living still exists in Peace Corps, but even Joe in the village doesn’t live like that in 2009. Besides, PC is in some 120 countries, from Eastern Europe to Guatemala. These emerging countries may lack the luxuries we are used to, but they are hardly all grass-hut and beans-and-rice nations.
Ayten’s Village Home
The reason I am writing about the village is that today only one college girl showed up for my conversation club, so I asked Ayten to practice speaking by telling me in her broken English about her home. She rents a shared room with another village girl, Haddiye from Oxud Kendi, in Sheki while she is enrolled in college, but she lives in a village called Ashaga Goynuk. The name means lower blue-something, but the something (nuk, pronounced nooch) has been lost over time.
Ayten (half moon) is 20. All her front upper teeth are gold. Azeris drink tea all day long, usually through lumps of sugar clamped between their teeth. You normally can’t drink water out of any faucet in the country, so boiled water poured over shredded tea leaves is the Azerbaijan method of hydrating without getting sever diarrhea. The sugar means that many Azerbaijanis past 15 have caps on most of their teeth. There is nothing sophisticated about Ayten, like there is about the girls from the rayon (region) centers. I like that as a change.
Her sister is Maral, 15, and her brother Vusal is 19 and away on his mandatory 1-year military service. Her father, Mohlud, is 49, and her mother, Hokuma, is 35. You can do the math.
She describes her village home as a big, five-room house. It has a bathroom (no shower or toilet), a guest room (living room), bedroom (where they all sleep), a kitchen (where they also eat) and a corridor (a long, enclosed porch-like hall). The corridors of Sheki Rayon houses have lots of windows so the rooms mentioned above can be illuminated through windows facing the corridor. Electricity is not always dependable for lighting.
Garden or Orchard?
Azerbaijanis call their yards gardens, but we would more likely call sections of the yards orchards. Ayten bragged that one part of the family garden had pear, fig (black and white), cherry (gilas and albali), alcha, quince, apple, yellow cornel, white and red pomegranate and eight mulberry trees, white and black. There are always grape vines in Azerbaijani yards, often providing shade over a sitting bower, and the orchard has two hazelnut trees and two qoz (other nut) trees.
Her dad plants the trees and her mother tends the garden. I didn’t bother writing a list of vegetables their garden contains, but I remember peas, cucumbers, lettuce, cabbage, black carrots (really more purplish), onions, tomatoes (which she first mispronounced as pomatoes), peppers, dill, parsley, melons and eggplant.
A Taste of Farm Life
Also in the walled-in garden is an outhouse (squat toilet), a chicken coop, a small barn with haymow under a gable roof, and a garage for the green motorcycle with sidecar. They don’t own a car. Few villagers own cars. There is also a tendir in the yard. A tendir is an enormous round brick oven for baking bread. A fire is built in the middle, the dough is prepared sticky, then it is slapped onto the inside of the oven wall to bake. The yard also has an old house in it that is small and no longer used.
They own one bull and two cows (for milk), two calves, ten hens, one rooster and a dog named Rex, pronounced reches. The entire walled-in area is about 70 by 90 meters.
Ashaga Goynuk (pronounced Aah-shah-ga Joy-nooch) has five food stores, a fruit shop, a clothing store, a computer store, a butcher shop and a furniture store. Food stores tend to be tiny, with a little bit of everything, from needles to noodles and shoe polish to nail polish. Every village has a shadlik saray (wedding palace), but many summer weddings are outside and everyone in the village attends.
Stepping Back into Rural Indiana
I have not been to Ashaga Goynuk, but I have been to other mountain villages, such as Bash Kungut, Bash Zeyzedt, Illisu and a village outside of Gebela. Ashaga Goynuk sounds typical.
Villages have not had natural gas (wood heat only by tiny metal six-siders) since Soviet times, shopping is limited, and culture is found in gatherings in gardens, wedding palaces and chayxanas (tea houses), but chayxanas are only for men. Sheki is a great place to live with its open bazaar for shopping, a few many Azeri and Turkish restaurants, natural gas (although irregular), and other amenities, but I wouldn’t mind living in a village and experiencing the “real” Peace Corps.
Actually, the villages remind me of Arcadia, Indiana, where I grew up in the 1950s. Our farm neighbors at that time still had outside toilets, our shower was in the open in our basement, and on our ten acres we had two apple trees, two pear trees and one cherry tree. There was a currant bush and a grapevine. We had chickens, ducks, cats, dogs, a pony, pea foul and plenty of room for sheep. The garden was a half acre of a little of everything—melons, sweet corn, green onions, tomatoes, peas, beans, strawberries and other fresh fruits and vegetables. The eight acres of tillable land sometimes was planted in tomatoes or sweet corn by the local cannery. It was a pretty good life then--a little like an Azerbaijani village today.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


How Is my Life Different in Azerbaijan

Friends and family members say they are fascinated about differences between life in the USA and my life in AZ. For one thing, USA is ABS in AZ. Other things I can think of are:

Most Peace Corps volunteers wash their clothes by hand. I did in Sumgait, but in Sheki I have what the PC’s call an R2D2. It is a simple washing machine that is about twice as big as a humidifier. I then rinse and wring out my clothes by hand and hang them on a line to dry.

Most home and public toilets are of the pit variety. You have to pay for most toilets that are public. Toilets are seldom inside the house.

I’m probably under 190, whereas in American I ranged from about 210 to 240 during the last 15 years. I don’t snack, and when I do it is more often to gain calories than for pleasure. Although I probably walked 800 miles a year at home, I am walking uphill more here, so the walks are more vigorous. Scales are rare as far as I can tell. There is not an obese student at my college of more than a thousand.

Friday I met a couple who had been missionaries in Sri Lanka, then joined foreign service and are now in AZ’s American Embassy in Baku for three years. Their 14-year-old daughter goes to an international school there and will go to a boarding school in the Indian Himalayas next year. I meet people who live very different existences than those at home.

Speaking of embassies, I have met and shaken hands with two ambassadors to Azerbaijan. One was the American Ambassador at the Peace Corps swearing-in ceremony, and the other was Norway’s Ambassador, who was in Sheki, where I live now, attending two openings of humanitarian projects. That’s not something I would probably ever do in Indiana.

I don’t have a car, so I either use public transportation or walk from my room in a house on the side of a mountain to town or school.

My food consists of the following:
Breakfast: Flat bread, salty goat cheese, butter and tea.
Lunch: a mutton or chicken soup with potatoes, garbanzo beans and carrots; dolma (grape leaves or cabbage leaves wrapped around rice and meat); a pasta soup; or a bowl of green beans with a little meat. All meals are served with abundant amounts of bread and tea. Grapes have been in season, so I also have had grapes at some meals.
Supper: Whatever I had for lunch.

My language skills are still developing, so I use a combination of sign language, Azeri and English. I usually get what I want, but it is difficult to get definitive information. When I ask a question in any language, I repeat it several times. I often get several conflicting answers. Then I must continue to ask until I feel relatively sure about one.

For example, there is a movie theater near me. Shows are all at 5 o’clock or so most days. They are Indian (Bollywood), Turkish or Russian. That means they are dubbed or have subtitles. I met some of my students and a teacher counterpart at the theater one night and was told it was in English by one student and Russian by another. Finally I was told it was in Russian but had English subtitles. Continued questioning revealed that it was really in Turkish without subtitles. I bought some popcorn, which I hadn’t been able to get for three weeks--I snacked on popcorn about 4 nights a week in American--and told my students I would see them the next day in class.

While I am typing this at 7:25 p.m., the mosque nearest me is broadcasting the last call to prayer of the day. I think there are five a day, and one is about 7 a.m. The voices are beautiful and float across the valley between the mountains that shelter Sheki on three sides.

Men don’t look or speak to women on the street unless they are relatives or good friends. Girls and boys don’t walk together. Girls don’t even look at boys. The boys look at the girls, though.

I drink five or six mugs or cups of very hot tea a day during meals, during breaks between classes and with friends. I have not had iced tea here, which was something I drank several times a day in the summer at home.

I text-message on my Peace Corps cell phone all the time, because I can’t afford to make calls on my 5-dollar-a-day living allowance. My cell is prepay. I have learned to love T9 message writing. Letters and post cards are about a dollar a piece to send home, so I use the Internet and my Blog instead. I can send tons of emails for fifty cents.

I have no idea most of the time what is going on in the rest of the world. My family has a satellite disk and it gets BBC World in English, but I don’t watch it very often. While I am eating my family usually has on a Turkish soap opera.

I don’t go to church because there aren’t any Christian churches in town, so six Peace Corps Volunteers and I get together for a Christian book club and dinner one night a week at a restaurant.

I have no morning classes and my afternoon schedule bounces all over the place. I teach about 16 hours a week and start about 1:20 and end at 6:10 on my longest days. I conduct three conversation clubs for students who want to practice their English but don’t have me as a teacher. Clubs run for one hour once a week now, but might expand to two times a week once I get settled. My earliest club meets at 11:45 in the morning. I also give lessons to my host’s son and daughter, who are in their twenties. I will be getting an Azeri tutor for myself in a week or two.

I have also been participating in an Azeri/American softball team. Team is a euphemism for different people showing up on different days on an old stadium field with a softball, bat and gloves. This sporting activity reminds me of when I coached T-Ball in Milford. During one practice I thought my host’s 21-year-old son was going to feed our only softball to one of three cows grazing on the field. The cow seemed more interested in the bright yellow ball than the Azeris. (I just finished supper and another call to prayer is echoing down the valley form a mosque higher up the mountain. It is 9 p.m., so ignore my early comment about calls to prayer.) Getting back to softball, we had to hold up practice for a few minutes one day because a shepherd was herding his flock of sheep across centerfield. Another time an Azeri child grabbed one of the bats and was hitting fly balls with it, only he was using a soccer ball. I went with the “team” to play in a tournament one Sunday and spent 6 hours round trip on a marshrutka getting to Barda and 45 minutes playing softball.

It has not rained at my house since I have been here. I think in rained downtown one day. On my preparatory visit several weeks before moving here, there was a cloud burst in Sheki that tore up some of the open rain sewers and eroded streets.

The streets by my house are cobblestone and very picturesque. Walking on ithem is almost ankle twisting in my thick-soled Sketchers, but Azeri women walk it in fragile heels with no trouble. The stonework and brickwork all over AZ is interesting and made to last hundreds of years. In the towns where I have visited, houses and yards (orchards) are walled in with solid blocks. They have gates they can open to let their car in, if they own one, and these solid metal gates have a door build into them.

Street signs are nonexistent or hard to find. Most Azeri drivers I have been with start out to their destination even when they don’t know where it is. They have no problem stopping and asking directions though. They will stop a half dozen times, because streets aren’t straight and there are many dead ends. A lot of waving and pointing and continued questioning accompanies the direction giving, so I wonder if directions are accurate. I try not to ask directions when two people are present, because you will often receive conflicting info.

Being late is a national custom. I have yet to attend any activity—and I have attended over a hundred here—that I can remember that started on time. Even the Peace Corps swearing in ceremony started late. Since being only five minutes early is late to me, I have spent a chunk of time waiting.

Not seeing women drive, sitting at outside cafes, drinking alcoholic beverages in publish, buying alcohol and shaking hands with men is difficult to get used to. Women cook at home and serve food, but men cook and serve in restaurants and al fresco cafes.

Living in “a fishbowl” is also hard to get used to. I pay for room and board, and hosts feel very responsible for their PC “guests.” So I have to let them know where I am going and when, whether I am eating out, about what time I will be home, etc. The people in the neighborhood know everyone and everything about everyone, including me, immediately. I run into shopkeepers in town that say in Azeri, “You’re a teacher at the teachers’ college.” Teachers I meet in town from one of the 20 or so schools in Sheki will tell me about a lesson I taught in one of my classes. Students have said they love to tell their friends and family members about me. Young neighbor children yell in English, “Hello. What’s your name?” When I walk over to them and say, “Hi. How are you? What’s your name?” they don’t know what to say. Their English skills reached their limit with “Hello. What’s your name?” So I say in Azeri, “Salam aleykim. Nejesen? Senin Adin nadir?” Then I repeat it in English: “Hi. How are you? What’s your name?” I follow that with: “Menim adim Joeldir, ve men Amerikaliyem.” That means: my name is Joel and I am an American. Then if they start speaking in Azeri, I’m the one that has to demonstrate my limited language ability.

I write journals everyday, but they are mostly rambling, because I have so many experiences that are unique to me every day that it is hard to organize my thoughts in any other way than chronological. I feel like I’m writing a James Joyce novel full of stream-of-consciousness passages.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Training Update and Site Assignment

Sara spoke with Joel last week. Joel said that his training interview went well and he was on track to graduate from training. He also said that he received his site assignment -- Sheki or Seki or Saki. Here is a link to some info:

He sounded very happy about the assignment and other currently serving Peace Corps Volunteers commented on how lucky he was to be assigned to Sheki.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Update from AZ

Well, I’ve been in training for several weeks now, and I am tired of sessions, meeting, etc. The hardest thing is learning the language. Classes are four hours a day six days a week. The afternoons are spent in culture sessions, washing clothes, eating, answering email, napping, study groups, etc.It has been hot most of the time. We were at the Olympic Center in Guba, but now are in a settlement in Sumgayit, a large city. My house is kind of like an Italian villa, only in town. All properties are completely walled in with orchards in the courtyards. I live up stairs and downstairs my family has a store, which is handy. When I have study group at my place, Rovshan, my host, does a good business in peach, apricot and kola drinks.The five members of my group offer me fruit from their orchard trees. These include fresh figs, apricots, plums and a couple of mystery fruits. All are good. I went to the market and bought a melon that was the color of a pumpkin. My hostess served it for lunch. The story here is that melon and honey eaten together will kill you.Speaking of lunch, food is good. I have had a ton of dishes I’ve never eaten at all. Every meal has tomatoes and cucumbers and flat bread. Meat at meals is scarce, and then it is chicken or mutton. The lamb chops in the al fresco cafes are small but excellent. Dolma is a favorite that means stuffed vegetable, egg plant, tomato or pepper.Transportation is cheap, about 30 cents to go downtown in a marsrutka, kind of minibus, to the open market and department and grocery stores. They are crowed, though. I have a cell phone, laptop, IPod and radio, so I’m not roughing it yet. This weekend I’m heading into the interior to visit a PCV, but again I’m going to a city, so things may not be too different. Most trainees will end up in small towns where amenities are difficult to come by, but I will probably be in a bigger town or small city because I will be working in a college.I like to walk to the beach in the morning to see the sun over the Caspian Sea . Sumgayit is on a large bay, and we can see Baku in the distance. There is a derelict ship stranded on a jetty that’s fun to look at.Language is difficult because of fricatives, umlauts, extra letters in the alphabet and sounds we never make in English. Wish me luck. Mene paltar almaq lazimdir means I clothing to buy need. I am an American is: men amerikaliyam. The be verb is a suffix.I have about three months of language and culture, then a test and then, if I make it, I get sworn in as a PC Volunteer.Although Sumgayit was once a modern city, it has come under disrepair after its independence in 1991 because of losing Russia as a market. It is the fastest growing economy in the world now, so in a decade or so it will be back where it was. It still has lots of oil and gas.Things different:· Chickens in my yard.· Tiny cars except for the Mercedes.· Gold front teeth are a fashion statement for men and women.· No toilet paper. They use a version of the French bide method, either a pitcher of water or a long sink sprayer hose near the toilet. Wash instead of wipe. Probably cleaner but not what I am used to.· Sheep occasionally graze along the side streets· Unmarried girls seldom walk alone. Engage, date then marry. Women dress more modestly. Men are in public places with other men while women are seen more around home, the market or with husbands on the street.· Only men swim in the Caspian where I have seen a beach. I guess in Baku they are more liberal and women can swim.· I have not seen a woman drive.· I have my water boiled and then PC has me run it through a filtering system that looks like a 60-cup coffee urn, spigot and all. Our water out of the faucet is clear, but I talked to a PCV from a town and I guess there is slug in her water.· Drinking is looked down on, and women can’t smoke or drink in public. I don’t see many people smoking at all, but there are cigarette butts everywhere.· There is no regular trash pick up so the streets are littered and there are piles of garbage anywhere they can put it out of the way and kind of out of sight. People just drop litter anywhere, out car windows, out of store fronts, etc.· It is a shame, because this is a beautiful city on a beautiful coastline. They are working on the problem.· Houses are made to last, meaning solid, not hollow, block construction.· Many manhole covers are missing. The holes make interesting obstacles for cars, walkers and marsrutkas. Some are on sidewalks, so walking at night requires knowledge of area or a flashlighg.· All men wear slacks and nice shirts, even if they are carpenters. Dark pants, light shirt, well pressed, etc. no matter what they are doing. No t-shirts, shorts and sneakers on grown man, and very few on children.· Despite that there is TV, people like to be outside, kids play outside, but the Internet cafes have video games, which are drawing some kids inside more.· Most houses do not have A/C.· Most books are in Russian.· Few house markers and street signs.· I have an automatic voltage regular that I plug things into.· All cell phones are prepay, and since I am on a limited PC income, about four dollars a day, not including room and board, I have to text rather than call. Otherwise I will use up all my contours, credits, and not be available to PC staff, trainees and volunteers. Cells are for security. I use money to get to town part of the time, and part of the time I just walk. Can’t spend too much on transportation, then I won’t have money for a soyuq piva, cold beer, or dondurma, ice cream, once in a while.· Took a long hike up a mountain to a castle ruins this past weekend.Thanks for the emails, but I probably won’t be answering all of them. The Internet cafes are cheap, about 20 qipik, 25 cents an hour, but they feel like saunas, the connections are painfully slow, and I have to walk 20 minute one way in the heat to get to a good one. And the net slows as people enter.Sorry about the condition of the journals. Mason put them on by mistake, and they are just random jottings I do during breaks, late at night, etc., so the errors are many. I'll try to rewrite some for public view.Take care and I miss you all.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Update Sept. 17

What Am I Doing in Azerbaijan?

The question friends and relatives asked when I told them I was going to serve in the Peace Corps in Azerbaijan was: Where is that? Why would you do that? After three months here, I find myself still asking myself: What am I doing in Azerbaijan?

To answer the first question, AZ is in the Caucasian region of Central Asia according to some experts. Others put it in Eastern Europe and still others in the Middle East. All of these answers seem to possess some validity. It is truly a crossroads and part of the ancient Silk Road. AZ lies on the Caspian Sea and is bordered by five countries: Armenia, Georgia, Iran, Russia and Turkey. It is rich in gas and oil, so it has been exploited for decades.

Addressing the second questions, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Education has requested assistance from PC volunteers to help teach English. Specifically, I will be teaching teachers of English at a teachers’ college, suggesting alternate curricular programs and methodologies. Other ministries have requested help for budding businesses, NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and youth organizations. So PC AZ 5, or the fifth group of American Peace Corps Volunteers in Azerbaijan, is working in these three areas.

I was recently sworn in as a PC Volunteer with 51 other Americans after we completed three months of rigorous language and culture training. I am one of the oldest, with the majority of PCTs under 25 and female. I am the only one assigned to a college.

The following doesn’t completely answer my personal question concerning WHAT AM I DOING HERE! I have a lovely wife, great grown children and grandkids, a wonderful 93-year-old mother, a comfortable home, a cottage on Dewart Lake, Social Security, teacher retirement and I had a part-time job that I liked at a hardware.

Now I am renting two rooms with a family that speaks very little English. The food is strange, there is no A/C, electricity is not regulated or always available, I have to wash my clothes by hand and I am expected to not use toilet paper. Instead I am supposed to use a version of the French bidet, but in Azerbaijan it is like a sink sprayer next to the toilet. I cannot drink the water without boiling and filtering it. I am still using toilet paper.

Part of my reason for joining PC is that I have always wanted to really find out how other people live. Tours are fine, but you usually only meet other tourists, stay in tourist hotels, eat in tourist restaurants, are led around in a large group by a guide, speak English and talk to people who love you for your tourist money. Also, I believe in serving my country. I was not in the military as a youth because I had a teaching deferment, and many countries, including Azerbaijan, have mandatory one-year military service. Plus, I know that I am extremely rich by world standards. Most people in the world don’t have electricity, let alone cars, A/C, running water, year-round fresh fruit and vegetables, refrigerated food and inside toilets. My toilet here in a nice house is still in a separate building, which ought to be fun when heavy winter snows hit the mountains. So, yes, I feel guilty to have been born into the richest society in history.

An example of how things are different is that bread is sacred here, but it is anything but sterile. At home if I bought a loaf of whole wheat bread, I know that it would have been made by a machine. It would have a sealed inner wrapper covered by a plastic bag with a twist tie. Then the cashier would put it in another plastic bag for me to carry it home. I would put it in the fridge between meals. Here, many of the bakers mix the dough by hand, tossing in more flour if needed with their bare hands. When baked they grab the round fairly flat loaves and stack them in a wooden crate. They then put them into the back of their Lada minicars, windows open, and deliver them around town. At the shop they grab them again and hand them to the shop owners who stack them on an open shelf. When shoppers come in, the owners’ hand the unwrapped bread to the children or adults and they carry it home in their hands. I’ve seen many kids stuff the still-warm bread under their arms and walk home. At home it is left out, often uncovered, and chunks are torn off by hand and passed around. You never throw bread away, just as Azeris never wear shoes in their houses.

Also kids still play outside. I’ve seen them play a version of hopscotch, make their own soapbox cars, drag plastic pop bottles around like dogs on a leash and roll hoops with a stick. They also play pickup games of soccer, and one girl in my group introduced them to ultimate Frisbee, which I also played with them and learned to love.

If I were going to make a couple hundred grand by working in Azerbaijan, or, if I were going to be a Christian missionary, I don’t think I would have gotten the What are you doing? question. But, in a way, PC is a mission. As the US Ambassador to Azerbaijan told each of us as we shook her hand during swearing in, “You are now an ambassador for the United States of America.” They played the Azeri Anthem during the ceremony, and then I had chills run down my spine as we continued to stand for our National Anthem.

Well, I hope I have a few good years left and can make some small contribution to the world, specifically Azerbaijan. America’s image has been established because of our very successful global entrepreneurship and many requests to police regional conflicts all around the world. But these don’t represent the whole picture. PC allows people to meet Americans and get to know them as individuals. All peoples of the world want the same things: jobs, families, peace, necessities, friends and a few luxuries. We discover we are more alike than different if we take time to get acquainted with our brothers and sisters in other countries.

It is especially rewarding to be serving in a part of the world that has been trampled on and left behind. Azeris suffered with the loss of Russian trade after the break up of the USSR. Azerbaijanis have a vision of what they would like their young country to be—they have only had independence since 1991. They are hard working, gracious, ambitious and struggling. They are rebuilding and the progress I have seen in three months is astounding. It won’t be too many years before they are back on their feet, then I don’t think anyone will say, “I wonder where Azerbaijan is.”

Local Ag Saqqal Joins Peace Corps in Azerbaijan

Local Ag Saqqal Joins Peace Corps in Azerbaijan

The typical Peace Corps Volunteer is in her early twenties, so the gossip around my host community before my group arrived to begin training in Azerbaijan was what the Ag Saqqal (Aahgk Sahkkle) would look like. The term means white beard. Since I am 63, I am considered very old, because some sources I read say that life expectancy in Azerbaijan is in the late fifties for men. And, I just happened to have a goatee that has quite a bit of gray in it, not to mention most of my head hair.

I’m on the other side of the world, and everyday I am treading water to keep afloat of all the language and cultural novelties. Currently I rent a room with Naila and Rovshan in Kotec #8, a settlement of Sumgayit. Kotec, pronounced cotej, is medium sized, but Sumgayit is a city. It’s on the Absheron Peninsula, which juts out into the Caspian Sea. My morning walk is often to the beach, where people park their Lada minicars, walk the beach, play soccer, walk the jetty to a shipwreck, eat snacks, ride their bikes, turn donuts with their Ladas, and even swim.

The school where I receive four hours of language training six days a week is across the street from my house. Recently I held a seminar for teachers downtown at the Dept. of Ed. Then I taught English conversation to college grads at a four-day class at a private language resource room.

After the seminar, the teachers wanted pictures of me with them and said things like: I will never forget you. For many people here, PCVs are the Azeris’ first encounter with an American. The students from the resource room were great teases and gave me an enlarged US play money one hundred dollar bill, a framed and signed certificate of appreciation and a cassette of a Azeri singer. Then, of course, they wanted pictures with the American. They also introduced me to the soft drink call kvas, but that is another story.

I am trying to become proficient in Azeri. The language is a trick too hard for this old dog to learn because of fricatives, extra letters, accents and suffixes that denote tense, mood, number, etc. “I am going” starts with the root getmek, to go, which can be used as a command, get, go, but the future tense is gedirajagam, a real mouthful. I am going to the shopping area by small bus is: Men marshrutkaya bazara gedirem. Russian words creep in with things such as marshrutka, usually shortened to marshrut. The spelling you see is not in the Azeri alphabet because it is too hard to insert the letters we don’t have in our alphabet.

The food has been good. There is cabbage, eggplant, tomato, peppers or olive leaves stuffed with rice and meat, which is called dolma. My landlord’s wife home bakes baklava, spelled paxlava here, and it is not as rich but twice as flaky and delicious as the bakery version.

PC training lasts for 3 months, and then, if I pass the language test and do well on interviews, I will be sworn in as a PC Volunteer. In Shallah, God willing, I will be teaching future English. They love native speakers, because they see so few of them. When they do, they are usually Canadian or British oil workers. Azeris tell me that they have trouble understanding my English because I don’t speak British.

I get a stipend of about five dollars a day for what PC calls walking around money. I receive more money, but it goes for room and board. The stipend is used for prepay cell phone credits, cold bottled water, marshrutka rides to afternoon PC sessions, toilet paper and other supplies. My lunch one Sunday at a Turkish bakery cost me one manat and fifty gipek for a pastry with meat in it, a gooey tart-like pastry with caramel and peanuts, a bottled peach carbonated drink and an ice cream (malt flavored) bar. That came to about a dollar and eighty cents American.

I started a worship service near the Caspian Sea at eleven o’clock Sundays. About five volunteers/trainees attend. We take turns leading.

My house has a shower, although it’s kind of a dribbler and a pit toilet. My water runs all the time and so does my electricity. Other trainees aren’t so lucky. Water is intermittent and sometimes the power is out for hours. When we go to our permanent sites, things may worsen for some. I spent a four-day weekend with a PCV in Ali Bayramli and we didn’t have water the whole time. Some places have electricity only certain assigned hours of the day. Most places don’t have central heating, so winter can be brutal, with PCV teachers teaching in coats and gloves and then going back to their rooms to crawl into their sleeping bags for the rest of the evening to keep warm.

I received my permanent assignment last week, and it is at the Sheki Pedagogical Technicum, which was founded for training silk manufacturers and is now a teachers’ college. Azerbaijan is a trading crossroads that goes back before the Silk Road. I spent part of four days there and it is a resort town set in the mountains. The house where I will live is on the side one of the Caucasus mountains, and Russia is just on the other side. I guess one could walk there in a day.

Things that are different from Indiana:
· Women don’t drive.
· The population is Muslim.
· Sheep graze the settlement streets.
· Public transportation is crowded but cheap and plentiful.
· Almost everyone--even shepherds, construction workers and butchers-- dresses nicely, no shorts, few sneakers and T-shirts.
· Mostly men go swimming.
· Nice girls get engaged, then date, then marry.
· Lots of engineers and college grads are out of work since Azerbaijan became independent after the break up of the USSR.
· Men gather at chayxanas, teas houses that have outside seating, to drink tea or beer, eat supper and/or play nerdt (similar to backgammon), chess and dominoes.
· Women gather in courtyards or apartment stoops.
· Mosques make calls to prayer that are broadcast across the community.
· Cows, goats and sheep are butchered right on the sidewalks.
· Kids still play a version of hopscotch, join pickup games of soccer, etc., and enjoy being outside.

Azeris are friendly as our Hoosiers, so that makes me feel at home. My main misery is the heat and humidity. I am sitting here typing with sweat dripping off my cheeks, eyebrows and nose onto my pants and the floor. In Shallah, this ag saqqal will be hiking with a couple of PCVs in the cool mountains of Sheki in a couple of weeks

Sagh olun.



August–Applied to PC, wife Sara gives me permission to leave her for two+ years.


October--Dental, vision, medical tests, shots, etc.

November--Medical evaluation continues......

December--Colonsocopy, then son Mason, who was in PC in Haiti, talks me into not giving up

January–Cystoscopy and Psychological Evaluation

February–Finally invited

March--Began learning Azeri and history of Azerbaijan.

April--Making contact with fellow Group 5 members

May--Taking care of "honey-do" list

June 1-23--Go crazy getting ready

June 24–Staging

June 27 to September 17–Living and teaching in Sumgayit

September 17--began working at college and university in Sheki.


Continued teaching college in Sheki


Continued teaching.

May 21 returned home after two school years.