Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A beautiful birthday in Azerbaijan

Those of you that know me well will know that I have developed a habit in the more recent years of letting my birthday fly under the radar. Amongst my fellow trainees here in Azerbaijan we had exchanged birthdays early on, but I had not planned on mentioning it to my host family. I did not want them to feel obligated to celebrate with me or do anything to mark the occasion, and in all honesty, the older I get the less significant the day has become for me.

This past Saturday I arrived home to a quieter than normal house, with my host parents and grandma at a wedding and one brother at a neighbors for the night. At one point in the evening as we were having tea, my brother Ali told me that he was now 7, but would be 8 soon. When I asked him when, I misunderstood his explanation of "soon" as tomorrow. I then got caught up in the spirit of the coincidence and told him that my birthday was the following day. (I can advise anyone that comes across this situation in the future that, as you might guess, it is the ultimate way to NOT keep your birthday under wraps:).

The next morning within a minute of opening my door after waking up, my 6 yr old brother was there to ask if it really was my birthday the next day. My grandmother then followed several minutes later with the same question. My awkward responses of yes to both was met with big smiles and "ahh's". When the subject of cake came up I did my best to explain it was not necessary. The topic then came up again several times during the day and each time I would try to explain it was not necessary, but they would just think I was not understanding correctly and just explain to me in different words that they were making a cake.

Sundays are our only day off from school here and although it is really nice to have a break, we are very limited with options of what we can do with our time. There are not any public places in our town like a coffee shop, library or cafe where we can meet and just hang out. So, Julie, Marcy and I decided to just take a walk in the afternoon for some fresh air and just to be out for a bit. We were gone for an hour or two and when I arrived home there was a beautiful homemade cake on the counter for me. My brother was super excited to show it to me and explain it was for tomorrow. I was very touched, but also a little embarrassed at the effort it must have required. I have enough trouble making a cake out of the box so can only imagine making one from scratch...

On Monday (my birthday) I did not start class until 11am so got to sleep in a bit. Once my door was open I was wished happy birthday by my host mom and grandmother and treated to a pretty awesome half English / half Azerbaijani rendition of happy birthday by one of my 4 year old brothers. I could have called it at that and had it as the perfect way to start the day. Little did I know it would get even better... Julie, who is a fellow volunteer, lives around the corner from me so she comes to my house each morning and we walk to school together. She arrived as normal and we were halfway out my courtyard when I was called back in by my host mom. She had the cake with a big candle in it for me to blow out and it was then cake and tea time. (The unofficial slogan for Azerbaijan, I believe, is that there is never a bad time for something sweet and it was definitely the case that day). The cake was delicious and such a thoughtful way to have my day start. I was in a great mood and we just chatted about how nice it was for the several minute or so walk to class. We then entered the classroom where I was met with more cake and probably the coolest birthday "candle" I have ever seen. More cake and tea and even some pictures (I promise to add soon), and a super thoughtful gift of a beautiful scarf and some cozy socks from the best language instructor ever, Mahira!

The rest of the day passed by with technical class in the afternoon and more birthday wishes. (Thanks Ceyranbatan 2 for the coke zero and Elmir and Khalid for the chocolates!). Rainy, muddy, cold walk back home from class and then in for what I thought was a quiet night. That changed around 8pm when people starting arriving at our house. Some were family members I had met before and others ones I was meeting for the first time as we exchanged hellos and I received wishes of happy birthday. Soon we all converged in our living room and I was sitting at the head of the table with a beautiful spread in front of me. I was truly so touched and moved by how much effort had gone into everything, that even if I had the ability to speak well in Azerbaijani I am not certain I would be able to.

After we finished eating, the men went to the other room to chat and the women settled in for their chat around the table. As my language skills are not great, my host mom was very aware that I could not really understand any of the conversation so told me that it was ok if I wanted to go. I took that as my opportunity to make a break for it asap in the direction of language assistance to try and compose an appropriate thank you. My luck shone on as Mahira also lives around the corner and happily agreed to help me. She put my thoughts on paper which I was then able to return back to my house and give to my host mom. She then read it aloud and I received an approving round of applause. It was really nice to be able to express some of the sentiment I felt, even if it was not necessarily spoken by me.

We wrapped up the evening around 11pm and I can honestly say it was one of the nicest birthdays I can remember. I feel very fortunate to be placed where I am and be surrounded by the people I am with. I am very lucky.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Site assignments

So yesterday was the day we found out where we would be placed for the next two years and which organization we would be working with. This, obviously, was a pretty important day for all of us and there was definitely a good mix of excitement and anxiety in the room. Looking around the room I found myself pretty subdued and not many nerves though.

My reaction, I am sure, was partly because I had a very good idea of what my assignment would be already, but I had also decided early on in the process of applying to the Peace Corps that this experience will be what I make of it. When applying, you are essentially putting control of a lot of decisions affecting you for two years in someone else's hands - what country will I be placed in?, what program within the Peace Corp will I be working in?, once in-country what family will I live with?, what other volunteers within the group will be part for my "cluster"?, who will my teacher be?, etc...

A good portion of this all comes down to chance (or fate depending on your view) and what develops from it is really up to me. To date here, I have not had much of a voice or opinion in what I have done or where I have gone and it has been all good (even the not so good). Looking back I would not change the experience or any component of it. Therefore, I continued on with that philosophy and although I did have some specific requests, I also wanted to rely on the experience and expertise of my Program Manager, Elmir. He is a really bright guy, who knows far more than I do and can see a much larger view of the picture here than I can. I completely trust his judgement and wanted to see where that would take me.

With that being said, I can now honestly say that I could not have requested or hoped for a better assignment. As most of you know, I started volunteering in Romania about 7 years ago working with orphaned and abandoned children and from the start it felt like I found the thing I was supposed to be doing with my life. It just always felt right. My biggest hope when I applied to the Peace Corps was that I would be able to, in some capacity, work in support of efforts for children and continue along the path of the work I began in Romania.

So, now with all that being said, I am incredibly happy to say that my site assignment is in a city called "Mingachevir" (which I am told is beautiful) and I will be working with "World Vision". For those of you not familiar with World Vision, they are a non-governmental international humanitarian development agency and have been working in Azerbaijan since 1994. They are dedicated to working with children, families, and communities and serve some of the most at-risk and vulnerable people in the world. I have a great level of respect for the work they do and am humbled at the prospect of assisting in any way I can here.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Still alive - just a bad blogger!

Ok, so it is rather obvious as I am now posting my first update and have been in country for six weeks or so that I am not the best blogger. I will do my best to improve going forward.

It has been a good six weeks here and even though it feels like six months at times, overall the time has passed quickly. We arrived here the evening of Sept 24th and spent our first few days in training as a full group of 44 volunteers. Was nice to meet everyone and start to make friendships with the people I will be spending the next two years with here. Busy days that passed by relatively uneventful with one sort of big exception. I somehow developed a crazy infection on the 24 hours or so of travel over here from a little blister I got the day prior from a new pair of shoes. The next week involved several antibiotic shots (nothing says welcome to Azerbaijan quite like a shot to the butt), and then another weeks worth of oral antibiotics. Was just the craziest thing to have happen, but I received great treatment from the medical staff here and after a few days I actually had an identifiable foot that I could once again walk on and fit in a shoe!

The Wednesday after arrival we broke into our "clusters" by program type and moved to our new towns with our host families where we will live until the first week of December. I am living in a small town called Ceyranbatan along with 10 other CED (community economic development) volunteers. My family is great - I live with a mom, dad, grandma, and four host brothers under the age of seven. The kids are a ton of fun, and although my family does not speak English and my Azerbaijani is very limited, we manage to communicate with a lot of gestures, simple wording and use of a dictionary. I am in school six days a week and the day is split between language study and technical sessions. For language we are a group of five along with our LCF (language cultural facilitator), Mahira. The other CED's study language separately and then we all come together as a group of eleven for our CED classes. The days are busy and the nights pass quickly with homework and other projects.

We are not in a place accustomed to foreigners so we are generally stared at a lot and people aren't certain exactly what we are doing here. There are also choruses of "hello" "hello" "hello" by pretty much every kid in town when they see us. Some are quite sweet and others not so much, but our entertainment value has declined ever so slightly over the past weeks as we settle in and there are now some familiar faces to exchange greetings with as we go through town.

On the major event side, we all partook in site placement interviews last week with Elmir, our CED program manager. During this time we discussed what we are looking for in our permanent placements. Things like organization type (NGO, micro-finance institute, municipality, etc..), how structured of an organization, city vs village, site-mates or no site-mates, etc.. We will find out our official placements this coming Thursday and I think we are all anxious to see where we will be spending the next two years. I promise to do a better job of posting a timely update for that.

Overall, things are going really well. I am enjoying the experience of living here and getting to know my family, fellow volunteers and country staff. I am enjoying learning the language and although it has been somewhat difficult for me I am remaining patient and diligent with my studies so I can continue to improve. "Inshallah" I will speaking well soon!

Hope everyone reading this is doing well and I will speak to you all later.