Saturday, September 22, 2012

Some of my favorite things

June was a wonderful month because my mom and Allison came for a few days! It was a great experience to share with them! Here we are on the top of Maiden's tower in Baku with the Caspian Sea in the background
Joey and I with our neighbor kids (4 our of 7). Mom and Allison didn't seem to mind the circus that these kids create! 
In a microbus (Marshrutka) on our way to Laza, my favorite place in AZ. I LOVE my sister! AND AZ loved her! 
My Amazing counterpart joined us on our journey to Laza. She is so spunky and full of great energy. She loved finding flowers that she could dry and make for 'medicinal' tea. 
My Mom celebrated her birthday while she was here!
Mom's Azeri style birthday party at our house! 
One of my students got married while my family was here and we were able to go to her wedding in Guba. My student is wearing the red dress. The next night she wore a white dress for her second wedding reception in Baku. 
Site-mate Corina, Joey and I were invited by our friend Vugar, to have dinner at his father's restaurant. We ate lots of delicious meats, drank tea and had great conversations about scary movies. After dinner we walked along the river.
Photo taken by fellow PCV - Paper Airplane Contest
Outside of my office showing off their paper airplanes
I LOVE my job! One Friday afternoon we took a walk to the river and blew bubbles and threw the frisbee around. The kids loved it too!
River Rock People. Friday afternoons are craft days, so our younger kids (3rd-7th grade) made awesome creations!
Here's what our older university aged boys came up with! 
Neighbor kids playing with bubbles

These are old bath houses that are no longer used, yet a cool site in Guba. 
The bridge from Guba to the Jewish settlement has been under repair, which is more like an obstacle course... but we made it across. 
Some sites as a storm was rolling in - Jewish settlement.

This is the name of our river. I think of it as a southerner saying 'good ya'll ' Chay is river AND tea.
Joey's joke is usually, what tastes better... 
This summer the neighbor boys realized we have games on our phones.
Now I understand why parents have to put time limits on technology... I still loved this moment. 
Our new bus station through gross windows on a dreary day.
We went to Tbilisi Georgia for a few days in August. This is a picture where the bath houses are still functioning.
Joey and I utilized them for a scrub and sulfer soak. I feel comfortable saying that was my first and last time.
Me trying to clean up one day created a greater mess once the boys saw what I was doing. These kiddos LOVE the highlight magazines. Dinosaurs, lions, birds and the potential to find a sticker, yes please! 
We don't have a vacuum. We do have little rolling thing that does the trick most days BUT on this particular summer day we needed to pull out the carpet and wash the floors to cut down on the dust and general gross summer smells of our house. This is an annual practice in Azeri households, although I did forgo the washing since I only will have to walk on these carpets a few more months. The down side of doing this job besides getting dusty and gross was getting wounded by the broom.
Last winter we were adopted by the far cat in the photo, Peash Peash. He showed up on our doorstep as a kitten with a messed up eye. Joey showed him lots of love and he's stuck around, which seems to have helped with our mouse invasions. A month or so ago, a neighbor boy showed up with the little cat with gigantic eyes wrapped in leaves so he didn't have to touch her.
 She has a few names which translate to 'gift', 'hey baby' and in English 'lil guy'. I'm fairly certain Joey will have a post dedicated to these cats before we depart in November.
Teymur was inspired by the Olympic games and wanted to make an extra large Azerbaijan flag and wear it on his back like the athletes. Instead, he stood on Joey's back!
Joey and I in Laza... it really is our favorite place because even if the weather's bad, the views and experiences are great!
A woman carrying the laundry from the spring in a remote village called Xiniliq about 2 hours from Guba into the Greater Caucasus Mountains. Their lives are so tough.
Another woman preparing to get water in Xiniliq 
Xiniliq village
Xiniliq village. Kids are amazingly cute here too!
Joey's original training group came up for one last reunion and we went to Xiniliq for the day. Since many of the people in this picture live far away, this was the one time opportunity to see some of the amazing sites in our neck of the woods. We travel in style! 
Prep for the 100th time
Practice makes perfect. 
The kitten loves shoes and making sure you have a dusty paw print as a parting gift. 
More to come. I'm starting to realize that I do indeed have to start my goodbye process. I have been lucky enough to be chosen as a trainer for the new group that came in yesterday, so of my remaining time I will be in Baku 2 and a half weeks. Time is flying and I'm eager to see you all soon.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Summer is in full swing here in Quba, which means we are working diligently to divide our time between our Peace Corps obligations and stuffing ourselves with the amazing fruits and vegetables that are in season in Azerbaijan.  Many Azeris take time off during the summer, to visit family and get out of the heat... but here we are, hurling toward August, and we're knee-deep in our summer curriculum, which includes English lessons, sports club, and our weekly arts group.  But in a way, life is much simpler now -- we teach our classes during the day, and relax and cool off at night.  We go through about 3 or 4 big watermelons a week.

We started off our summer with Son Zəng, the graduation or "last bell" ceremony at my school.  It was a great day to cap off my school year -- the kids were all dressed up, awards were given, and everyone was generally in good spirits.  It was the second and last graduation I'll have here in Quba, and it was a good one.

Dancing at our Son Zəng party
Son Zəng celebration at my school
My girls are pumped for summer to start!

We jumped right into our summer class schedule, which includes English lessons for kids of all ages: kindergarten, elementary school, high school, and Hillary's ongoing courses with a group of girls at the local education college -- they'll all be English teachers next year, but this is the first time they've ever spoken English out loud.  (She comes home exhausted but very proud from these classes.)  Our art club is still going strong, and we've done a lot of fun projects with the kids: coasters/hot pads made from re-purposed milk and juice containers, necklace beads made from magazine page strips, animals made from clean trash, and of course, friendship bracelets.  Twice a week, we take the kids outside, where we play a barrage of games like Red Rover, Marco Polo, and Red Light Green Light.  They also love frisbees as well as freeze tag, whose name is actually the Azeri word for ice cream.

(Oh yeah, we eat lots of ice cream too!)

Our kids going crazy with paper and glue during art club
Homemade coasters and pot-holders made from recycled materials!

But it's not all just time in the classroom -- we've hosted a handful of our fellow PCVs as they travel around the country.  We recently ended up with 4 of our friends sleeping on our floor after a night of pizza, guitar, and great conversation.  (Sadly, our toilet was a bit worse for the wear, as 6 Americans in one spot is a tough gig.)  Regardless, we're proud of our community and any chance we get to show off the connections we've made with those around us.

Hanging out with our fellow Peace Corps Volunteers
Talking and laughing with other Volunteers

The greatest guests we had, though, were undoubtedly Hillary's mom and sister Allison.  They made it via Germany and The Netherlands, and spent a couple of days with us in Baku before arriving "back home" to Quba.  Their visit was incredible, and they were amazing sports with everything we threw at them: typical 4-hour-long "guesting" experiences at Azeri homes, extended hikes up to local waterfalls, trekking through Old City and Park Boulevard in Baku, and an impromptu birthday party at Hillary's office.  With every step they took, they soaked up the culture around them, asking us insightful questions each evening.  They didn't complain about our meager living situation, nor did they balk at our toilet/shower setup.  Even better, they got a real taste of Azerbaijani cuisine, and I'm sure they'll be a great help to us when we get back to America and the rest of the family is clamoring for some authentic Azeri food.

Hillary, Gail, and Allison during a quick moment
of quiet during their visit to Azerbaijan
Gail and Allison get to know Nərmin, one of Hillary's greatest students
An enormous, wonderful meal at the home of Hillary's counterpart, Aycamal
The Smith women with a delightful bread baker in Old City Baku

Otherwise, we've been taking each day as it comes, often comparing our experiences this summer to how things were for us last year... of course we understand things better, and our language is more up to speed, so we can communicate more effectively, but overall there's more a sense of belonging, of community.  Perhaps the novelty of the wacky Americans has leveled off?  Some things never change, though... The screaming baby has returned to our landlord's home next door, giving us numerous chances for what my father Bob refers to as "an opportunity for personal growth."  I've added some David Bowie and Pavement songs into the setlists for my nightly guitar concerts.  We're staying cool by staying indoors and reading a lot of good books and catching up on old movies and TV shows.

We do have a couple of big events to look forward to: in August we'll finally take the trip to neighboring Georgia, where we'll spend 3 days in the capital city of Tbilisi.  (Most PCVs save money by going together in a big group, and share a room in a hostel... but I maintain that I am too old for a bunk bed, and I insisted on a hotel room with A/C and free wifi.)  In early September, we'll host our first Quba summer camp, featuring such activities as creating animal masks and making a movie, doing an egg-drop just like in science class, as well as yoga and improv games.  Wish us luck, because we'll need it!

In the meantime, we'll cool off with fizzy water and giant watermelons, and we'll keep on straight through the end of summer.  We've got less than 4 months here in Azerbaijan, and we're determined to make 'em count.  See ya soon!

Monday, July 23, 2012


Recently a great friend of mine created a new blog about the interesting elements of neighbor life and asked me to write a piece about my experiences with our Azerbaijan neighborhood. Hope you enjoy!

Here's my post:

If you'd like to read more about Neighborista, you can subscribe to her blog!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

I Finally Have A Little Brother!

June 1st was a big day. Emin (Ay-meen) turned 15 years old.

When we arrived in Guba a year and half ago,  Emin was our silly, skinny, 13-year-old host brother. For the first few days at the house, Emin and his older brother Ayaz borrowed their uncle's computer that had a English translation/speaking program on it, and Emin loved to just type away. With the click of a button, Azeri words were quickly translated into stiff, robot-sounding spoken English. Once the computer was returned, Emin would sit directly next to me on the couch and simply stare at me. While he would think of things to say, he would make sounds like the cookie monster (nom nom nom), but he'd stop without saying anything and then continue staring.

As time went on we realized that he could actually speak English, and with a little nurturing, we learned that he could speak English very well but lacked some confidence and feared mistakes.  I think he was surprised when he realized he actually knew how to speak so well. After our 4 month stay with his family, Joey and I decided to move out into our own home, which did not make Emin very happy, since we seemed to make the household much more exciting for him and he really enjoyed our company.

In a relatively short period, we had learned that he loves the Azeri pop singer Roya, is amazingly sensitive, and has a good knack of intuition. He also loves Santa Claus, loves to make Novruz bonfires as we welcome in Spring, and loves to walk around town being embarrassed if people notice us.

New Year's 2010
Christmas celebration 2011
Novruz bonfire 2011

Once we were out on our own, Emin began to visit us on a daily basis (which continues to this day), and our relationship has really deepened. We sit on the couch (not staring at each other) and have honest discussions about life in Azerbaijan, life in America, life as a kid, and his own life aspirations -- a pretty big leap from our conversations when we were at his home. He participates in my conversation clubs at work, and he's had the opportunity to attend ABLE, a leadership camp for Azeri boys. He came back from ABLE with a new and excited energy to give back to his community. He still remained shy, and it took a lot of energy to encourage him to step out and be a leader among the youth in our community. Soon, he began to prepare for the biggest opportunity in his life, the exam for the FLEX program, which provides full scholarship for a one year study abroad experience in America to high school students from post-Soviet countries. Emin made it through each of the 3 separate rounds, which is an amazing accomplishment especially since it was his first attempt. Even though he did not receive an invitation, this opportunity gave him something he didn't know he could learn. This opened his eyes to knowing he can do more.

  Don't get me wrong, Emin is totally a teenage boy -- but he is an amazing kid. He trusts us and we trust him. He's sensitive. He's silly. He's sometimes lazy and sometimes motivated beyond belief. I've learned when he wants to bring up a difficult subject that he needs a little time to feel comfortable. Over the last year we've had lots of conversations about the pros and cons of attending University. (Generally the University exams are extremely difficult to pass, and it requires a significant amount of expensive tutoring.) A year ago, Emin was certain he would finish high school at 9th form and go to a technical college, but now he is motivated to complete high school and pursue a University education so he can become an official community leader, give back to Azerbaijan and be an inspiration to other young people around him. He recognizes the importance and significance of education, and wants to make the effort! I honestly don't know what impact Joey and I have had on this young man, but we just keep poking away at the meaning of his questions, we try to dig a little deeper and keep asking questions back to him. (My Biogen Idec training continues to come in handy.) 

Waterfall in Guba region
Days before his 15th birthday
June 1st has come and gone and Emin is now15 years old. He's grown so much in the last year and a half, in both height and the depth of his thinking. He loves to make jokes. He tells us we've helped him understand his dreams for the future, and we all get a little sad when we think about November when it'll be time for us to pack up and head home. By far, he has been the best part of my life in Azerbaijan, and I'm certain he'll be be what I will remember most when I return home...  AND with current day technology, he won't really ever be that far away. He certainly has a lot of things going against him at times, but Joey and I truly hope that we've given him more self-confidence to fight for what he believes in, to surround himself with people who have similar motivations & drives in life, and to find the people who will love him for who he is and not what they think he should be.

Happy Birthday Emin! You are what makes Azerbaijan great!

Emin's 14th birthday party with Mother and cousin.

Emin's 15th birthday in Baku with Michael and Joey