Sunday, December 4, 2011

Holiday Extravaganza(s)

So Halloween makes the text books in Azerbaijan, but there is still a limited understanding of the holiday. We talked about the key words of Halloween like; jack-o-lantern, candy, trick or treat(which is a really hard phrase to say here!), costumes, skeletons, ghosts, haunted house... It was a really fun way to start the week and get out of our regular routine of talking about
favorite fruits, what is her/his name questions and answers.

In honor of the holiday, I was able to put some Stateside donated construction paper and scissors to use so all of my classes could make Halloween masks.

Joey and I traveled to the NorthWest of Azerbaijan to a town called Qax. The day before, was a beautiful fall day where we participated in a Georgian pilgrimage to a Christian church for honoring Saint George, eating much pork kabob and Georgian home-aid wine. Our American Peace Corps Volunteer Thanksgiving began with snow from the moment we woke up to the moment we went to sleep. A friendly turkey wandered into our friend's outdoor kitchen but was spared since it was not on the menu. We prepared some side dishes and walked to the Georgian restaurant for dumplings, Khajapuri, and mashed potatoes and returned for pumpkin

On Saturday, we were in Baku for our big Peace Corp Thanksgiving dinner and it was a wonderfully civilized, warm and a delicious meal!

5 Year Anniversary
So our big five year mile marker in our marriage resulted in a long bus ride from Qax to Baku. Due to the snow from the day before, it took a little longer than normal AND with a cracked seal on the window in front of my seat, my entire right side of my body was absolutely freezing. Joey being the wonderful husband he is, provided me an extra layer warmth with his coat. On the plus side, we did arrive in Baku and had a wonderful Turkey soup from a wonderful
embassy family that provided us housing for the weekend! Although this was not an ideal or remotely romantic anniversary, we were just happy to be with each other and cherish the thoughts of our big day 5 years ago and know we were surrounded by such amazing people then and now!
And now we're off to celebrate Christmas with volunteers from our region. MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

And We're Back!

So it's been over a month since we returned back from our whirlwind trip to America. (Joey will fill you in on all the details soon.) We were greeted by amazing jetlag and the first of two weddings, we did lots of stuff in between, and then closed out our trip with the second wedding. Some might say it was crazy, but it's what we like to call a vacation.

A few things I learned:
  • It was really easy to come back to America. It was easy to fall back into the roles that everyone (including myself) expect of me. Since we were only home for two weeks, I'm not sure if that is or will be my reality in a year from now, but we got it done! Even though I've been living and breathing Azerbaijan for the last year, it was also easy to just get 'stuck in the moment' and not think about my life back here in AZ. It made me really understand how difficult it might be for those of you who are living your life to really think about us here on a regular basis, since we're so far away and living such a crazy, different life here.
  • It was also so easy to get distracted! Because I am not accustomed to hearing much English around me (especially in social situations), when there were a lot of people around, my ears kept picking up other conversations! Here in AZ, I'm so focused on trying to understand and communicate with one person that I have tunnel vision/listening and can pretty much drown out all other voices because I don't naturally pick out words. My apologies to any of you who felt the wrath of this lesson learned!
  • Wow, I can't recall a time in the last year when I've ever been so BUSY. I fully realize that I was in matron of honor mode, and had a lot of catching up to do since I've been missing in action for the past year. Between every meal we generally had somewhere to be, something to do, and someone to see. It was truly a gift, but amazingly exhausting. Comparing that American pace to our life here doesn't even begin to look at all the same. However, since communication was so easy, I felt like I could really do it all during those two weeks. Sadly, my last few hours in the States, I didn't feel so mentally strong, as I crammed an amazing amount of stuff in suitcases.
  • Technically this isn't something I learned, but I was able to recognize the level of generosity from friends and family who donated things for us to use here in Quba. It was an awesome reaffirmation of the work we're doing! We received a huge amount of school supplies/financial support to bring back to Azerbaijan, donated from friends, family, former co-workers, and a Girl Scout troop! We've already put some supplies to work last month as we made Halloween masks! Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.
  • Finally, I didn't expect to have a great urge to return back to AZ life, but I think I really did. I've found that this place is my home. The kids I work with on a daily basis are truly amazing, and I get to see their motivation increase, their creativity rise, and their joy fill a room. I'm not done here yet, and even though it's not totally understood by some, I'm still learning (and sometimes teaching). I continue to learn so much about this new, different culture, about a religion that's highly misunderstood by many, about a lifestyle that's had such an oppressive history. Likewise, I'm learning about myself and my relationship with Joey. I like learning, but I know that in a year from now, I'll have much more learning to do as we re-enter a life in America that will be familiar and unfamiliar, all at the same time.

Have a happy Thanksgiving! We love you and we sincerely thank you for your support!

If anyone wanted to drop us a Christmas card, or has a desire to send us a care package in the future (Joey's requesting bacon and summer sausage), here's our address:

Hillary and Joey Zielazinski
Agamali Oglu Kuchesi #69
Quba, Azerbaijan

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Stateside party!

We really can't explain how excited we are for our upcoming visit to America.  Two weddings!  Tons of family!  Obscene amounts of fried foods!  Perhaps most of all, we're looking forward to seeing all our friends that we've been missing for the past year.  We'll be pretty busy throughout most of our visit, so we wanted to put together a specific event just for "hanging out."  On Thursday, Sept. 29th, we'll have a whole evening just for friends and family -- come out to the James Joyce Irish Pub in Durham, enjoy some great food and drinks, and say hello to us before we hit the road back to Azerbaijan!  We'll have the back patio all to ourselves, and my band The Monument Club will play a couple of sets of classic indie rock.

Party starts at 8pm.  DO IT!!

Friday, September 2, 2011


Back in July, Hillary and I were talking about the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.  This year it would start on August 1st, and run throughout the entire month.  Many of our friends and colleagues here in Azerbaijan would be fasting for a month, and we wanted to do something similar, something that would get us to focus on ourselves a bit more than we have been throughout the rest of the year.  We thought about different spiritual practices we could consider for this month, and different projects we could work on.  In the end we settled on religion podcasts from America, and... exercise.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am morally opposed to exercise.  Well that's a bit harsh, but at the very least I am not a fan.  While I was away this summer, a fellow Volunteer convinced me to run through a Turbo Jam workout one afternoon after our camp had finished.  Images of traipsing across the Sperry High School track and falling down on the basketball court immediately came to mind, and I was apprehensive at best.  But I powered through, and found that I was not actually dead by the end of the workout.  So I came back to Quba with a more positive attitude about things.

Before the workout

We started out with a very cheesy video consisting of "eleven essential moves" and quickly realized that we are not very good at any of them.  Every day got better though, and within a week or so we had a rhythm down and had a solid routine for our evenings after our afternoon classes were finished.  Hillary and I both had days where one of us tried to cancel the workout, but the other one wouldn't stand for it.  Even better were the cheers and sweaty high-fives after we completed our routine.  We had fresh breeze to cool us off, and the promise of a kind-of warm shower to keep us going.  By the end of the month, we were up to two videos PLUS sets of pushups and situps.

At the very least, it gave us some intentional time to spend together.  This summer had its fair share of extremely frustrating moments, given that we were co-teaching 3-4 classes a day together.  We would plan our lessons, but were never really sure what might happen once the kids showed up -- we'd have new students with each lesson, and our "core group" of students basically changed completely mid-session.  Our house is literally three rooms, so there's really nowhere to go to take a breather and decompress.  (Hillary recently pointed out to me that there's not one room in our house where one person cannot see the other.)  We knew that each evening we would have some time to spend with each other working toward a common goal.  It was a great feeling sitting down to dinner after our exercises, knowing that we had both accomplished a goal together, no matter how small it might seem at the moment.

We realize that here in Quba, we're on this big adventure together.  That's great and all, but certainly we've had to get creative with our coping strategies, as life here is extremely different than life in America -- in extremely different ways than we expected.  Spending time together in the evenings has given us the opportunity to really talk to each other -- about Azeri culture, our expectations for our own Peace Corps service, and what life might be like when we return.  We gave ourselves the chance to chat with each other, to fume and laugh together, and to top it off with a healthy release of endorphins.  Most importantly though, it gave me a chance to wear a sweet doo-rag.

After the workout

Ramadan came and went, and we had lots of fun with the Eid celebration at the end of the month.  We're continuing our exercises at a smaller scale, at least till we get to America and don't have time.  I came up with the brilliant idea to do situps every time our internet goes out...  so I've been doing a lot of situps lately.  Better yet, I think we'll still work to make room for good conversation at the end of our day -- one of the biggest lessons I've learned this month is that it's important to be happy and connected with your partner here.  After that, everything's pretty easy.

Monday, August 29, 2011

We're coming home... well, at least for a few weeks!

Many of you know that Joey and I will be heading back to North Carolina for two weeks to take part in two separate weddings in LESS than a month! (FYI: September 23rd to October 1oth) We're so lucky to have such wonderful friends and family, AND the ability to fill most of our time catching up with great people -- we hope to see you! (Joey will have more updates later on the when and where for all you NC folks.)

Basically we'll be arriving on the same day we left a year ago, and it's going to be a whirlwind for sure. Many of you have asked us over the last year what types of things we might need or want, AND we've been extremely lucky to receive such kind and thoughtful care packages. THANK YOU!

So this is where the reading becomes optional...

Since shipping is so expensive to send packages to Azerbaijan, if you have been inclined to send a care package but haven't had the time to stand in line at the post office... here's your chance to skip the lines and the fees and help out a Peace Corps Volunteer! My sisters, Mom and in-laws have all agreed to collect and bring things to us from you. (Joey's folks are coordinating a trip from Oklahoma to North Carolina to coincide with the first week of our stay!) Since Allison's getting married and already has a few obligations of her own, it might be best to hand things off to Jess if you are a Biogen Idec person. (I can provide contact information if you need, so just email me if you have questions.)

If you do pass things along, please make sure to put your name, address and email address on a note. My kids would love to say thank you!

I've provided a guideline below of the kinds of things that might be helpful, but it's certainly not limited to these 4 categories. Ultimately, we want to do more craft-type things with the kids here in Quba, but we've run into issues with supplies or having the means to get the supplies. I created the guidelines below with activities for next summer in mind, and we'll also be attempting to create an art club when we return in October. Likewise, I've included things that won't be the end of the world if we don't receive them, but also won't be a problem if we receive a large portion! New and used items are A-OK!
We sincerely thank you for your interest in our service in Azerbaijan, and we appreciate all the thoughts, prayers and well wishes. We'll need them all for another 14 months!

Our first trash pick-up party!

School Supplies
  • Dry erase markers – any size or color

  • Non-machine paper laminate

  • Reading books – child or young adult

  • Index cards

  • Anything to help make learning English fun

  • Frisbee

  • Boomarang

  • Puzzles – any variety from kids to adult

  • Uno

  • Memory

  • Anything smallish and easy to teach that's fun

  • Construction paper

  • Embroidery floss – for friendship bracelets

  • Magazines – any variety ( I cut them up for activities)

  • Crayons

  • Kid-size scissors

  • Elmer’s glue

  • Velcro stickers

  • Popsicle sticks

  • Stencils

  • Watercolor set

  • Little paint brushes

  • Coloring books

  • Pipe cleaners

  • Googly eyes

  • Colorful feathers

  • Yarn

  • Ribbons

  • Toms Of Maine toothpaste

  • Bear Creek Soups, or just-add-water soups

  • Peanut butter

  • Fair-trade ground coffee

  • Hot chocolate

  • Mint tea

  • Individual water flavor packets

  • Granola bars

  • Packs/bags of American candy for our neighbors

  • Food flavor packets -- Taste Of Thai, Indian sauces, French onion dip, etc.

Çox sağol! We thank you SO MUCH from the bottom of our hearts. And... we hope to see you all soon!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Summer updates

Since the last bell of school rang out on May 31st, our summer has been filled with kids, camps and lots of learning how to do summer things here in Azerbaijan. In every category we've done more learning than we ever could have imagined, and as we begin to wind down our 2011 summer, we're starting to think about how we'll be excited to possibly better manage things next summer!

As for our primary work, Joey and I have spent a lot of time here in Quba, working with a huge number of kids. During our Peace Corps training last year, it was explained that children generally don't participate in summer activities due to other obligations like work and travel, so we didn't really anticipate any sort of real participation in our summer courses. Apparently this rule must be more for the villages or small towns, because here in Quba we have a lot of summer visitors from Baku, and it seems like many families stay here since it's a bit cooler than other parts of the country.

Needless to say, with the locals and the addition of the Baku kids, we've basically doubled our numbers from my Spring English courses and clubs. It's been wonderful, but it's also put a great strain on our ability to manage a large number of children while still working to maintain basic speaking skills. With 9 separate groups, we're basically working with well over 200 kids a week. We've had our ups and downs for sure, but as August comes to an end, we'll have plenty of time to decide what's next. School begins in mid-September, so managing my new schedule once Joey goes back to school will require some obvious boundaries that we didn't implement during the Summer. Oh how we learn!

One new concept we learned about is the Azeri idea of "camp."  It's not a traditional American summercamp -- rather, think 4 hours of activities in the morning to beat the heat, and then the kids go back to their homes. (Sometimes everyone will meet up again in the evening for sports or activities.)  Since we've traveled to other Peace Corp Volunteer sites, this allows us to get to know what's going on with other folks, and gives us the chance to see different portions of the country. Since we always have to go through Baku to get to most other places, travel gets pricey and LONG. I put in time with 2 camps and Joey did a back-to-back, finishing out with 3! We're thinking how we might be able to put on a Quba art camp next year...

Lessons Learned This Summer:
  1. Joey and I have learned how to can Azeri-style. So far we have 3 jars of pickles, 4 liters of tomato sauce and 5 smaller jars of salsa for the winter. Up next, we'll be stewing tomatos. (I might actually write a separate post about canning, since it took many neighbors to help, AND we're still not sure if it's going to work. I mean it looks good now, but will the jars spoil? We're not in the land of Ball mason jars!)
  2. Managing the heat has also been an interesting one. Since there is no air conditioning we've had to learn new techniques, like keeping the doors and windows open at night and during the late evening, but shutting everything up in the morning so the cool air stays in. These are concrete homes, so they really absorb what the weather provides... it's an oven in the summer and a refrigerator in the winter.
  3. Joey was able to go to the bazar and get some screen so we could better manage our bug situation. However, this was really propelled by what I think was a cat coming through a window and into our home in the middle of the night and scaring the daylights out of me. The next day we had the screens up. In addition to the screens, we were able to move around our curtains and cover the door up, allowing us to get the cool night air, yet not invite every single bug to join us.
  4. Joey's nightly concerts of playing guitar and singing for the kids has really made the neighbors much more comfortable with us. Up until the concerts we really didn't see anyone, since we come and go and live behind tall walls. Once the nightly shows kicked in, the moms and grandmas would lean out their gates or windows and watch. This might just be the way it is, but it seems like Joey's shows allow the women a time to come out and talk to each other. I've gotten to know some of these ladies, and it's been really nice to find out that they're all looking out for us!
  5. A homemade Memory game can help kids learn new English words! The week that Joey was at his 3rd camp, I was not about to pick up his guitar but I was able to put my Memory game to use. We have really eager neighbor kiddos, and they now love to play since they know the English word matched with the magazine clipping. Thanks for all of you that have sent magazines... you're helping educate too!
  6. I can bake! Apparently all it takes is reading a recipe and then you can make really good food. Amazing. I had no idea.
  7. Eating a melon a day makes you happy. Joey has fallen deeply in love with cantaloupe. It took coming all the way to Azerbaijan for him to realize that he actually likes many fruits and veggies! However, my loyalty still stands with watermelon.
Delicious fruit salad!
Enjoying lunch with other PCVs
during the Zaqatala arts camp

A nice view of the Caspian Sea in Nabran, the Myrtle Beach of Azerbaijan
Our summer view of the mountains.
If you squint, you can still see some snow up top!

A handful of neighbor boys join in to sing with Joey during his nightly "concert,"
while Hillary gives a quick English lesson to a young girl.

Rocking out with the kids gets us lots of attention...
One day we came home to find that our front gate
had been "tagged" with some fruit-juice graffiti!
Some of our fans had written our names in Azerbaijani.
The first apple pie of the season!
It turned out GREAT,
and we served it at a 4th Of July party in Xachmaz.
Fresh, local cucumbers with pickling spices and dill.  Delicious!

Saturday, August 6, 2011


Throughout the summer we've been pretty lucky with our electricity situation. Pretty consistently we have electricity to cook in our oven, use the internet and if at night, shower with a light on.

In late Spring it rained quite a bit and one day we had a flooding type situation. That day, the power went out. Since then, we haven't had a whole lot of rain and we've had our "power." Summer has been hot and dry and it seems like our seasons change at the beginning of new months. For example, when we arrived last September, it was really hot. Then on October 1st, the winds came off the Caspian sea and the weather changed. It's totally coincidental, but I've noticed this pattern for most months. So after a mild June, came a hot July and since the beginning of August, it's been cool and rainy.

For the last two days, it has been almost sweater weather and it kept spitting rain and then transitioning to the harder rain you hear hitting the tin roof. Needless to say, the electricity went out. A positive with the cooler weather, our concrete brick house has begun to cool down. It took about 2 days to normalize, so maybe once it begins to heat back up again, it will take a while to get back to oven status.

Here's the not so serious impact of nearly 20 hours of not having electricity:
  • Cooked eggplant on the gas stove instead of baking it
  • Couldn't start or make the apple pie. Will still have to wait a few more hours to get the butter hard again for the crust. Not so bad, keeps the kitchen cleaner longer.
  • Defrosted the frozen freezer (plus!)
  • No access to the outside world via computer. Went to bed earlier.
  • Weekends are precious times to Skype and we lost an American day
  • Headlamp/flashlight broke into multiple pieces when dropped from the only shelf in the shower. Surprisingly resilient little guy and once put back together, it still works!
  • Continued to improve my candle contraption - glass bottle and the top of a coke bottle
  • Joey was not able to perform his nightly concert to the neighbor kids due to cold/rain
  • We were able to daydream/strategize about our trip back to America in less than 2 months!
  • I was able to study some Azeri this morning
  • Cleaned out the fridge
  • Prepped our spaghetti sauce canning stuff
Ultimately, it is not so bad loosing power. It forces you to really take a look at what is within your control and make due. It's nice to have lots of comforts around us but when they're not there, we live on!
This electric symbol is on the front of most circuit breakers.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Test of International Living

Being married, Joey and I have a built in support system since we get to share our PC service together. This we knew when we left the good old USA. However, our support system had never met the test of international living. I think one of our biggest adjustments has been actually being around each other so often. Back in America, we’d go to our own separate jobs, eat lunch at said job and then come home to quickly go to our next event or activity. We’d usually have dinner together, but not always. We were busy back home in a completely different way than we are busy now AND even though we love each other dearly, we didn’t spend a whole lot of time with each other. Sounds like a normal American marriage to me, huh?! 

Since December, when we arrived in Quba, Joey and I have spent the majority of everyday together. When we were in host families, we had our own room but now that we’re in our own house, due to space and door constraints, we can literally see each other from anywhere at anytime. We do have separate jobs during the school year, but during the summer months, we have spent nearly every waking moment together. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been completely wonderful to take our relationship to a deeper level,but there are those dreadful days when I get on Joey’s nerves (perhaps the vice versa) and we have no place to go. So, we talk it out, we work it out and we try to learn from it. Also, we remind ourselves that we signed up for this voluntarily. Some days that's comforting, some days not.

I think the nearly 5 years of marriage is working to our benefit, we know each other pretty well, we knew about these personal quirks even if they’re magnified a bit more, but all in all, it seems to be making us a better team. I can’t imagine being a newlywed trying to live a PC life and learning those things about your spouse that you adjust to or learn you can’t or don’t want to adjust to. 

We’re in this to be models of what American marriage is. Yes, we’re speaking for all you married people out there… for better or worse. We let young boys and girls know that it is ok for Joey to wash dishes. One night this sent a neighbor boy giggling to tell his mom and grandma that Joey was washing dishes! People understand that I worked in an office and can drive a car back home while Joey was the teacher. Azeri’s see us together and happy! They see us as very young and are incredibly surprised when we tell them our ages and that we’ve been married for almost 5 years and do not yet have children (more on the children topic in another post). 

So to sum things up, being married is good. Joey and I are learning more about each other than we ever thought was possible but we’re able to laugh, cry and groan through it and still like each other. We are lucky, but we are having a different type of experience, simply because we are married. More to come!

July 4th - The Caspian Sea

Thursday, July 21, 2011

I'm no expert on being married, being a Peace Corps Volunteer or living in Azerbaijan but Joey and I fit into these 3 categories, so I'll/we'll attempt to write more from this perspective. This one is short and sweet, BUT be prepared for longer and not so sweet...
  • Joey and I have spent more than half of our married life talking about being in the Peace Corps and making it happen.
  • We've been married nearly 5 years, which makes life here in AZ easier and sometimes harder.

Here's an example of one of the many reasons why I love this man!

The kids at this camp adored Joey. Of course, what's not to love when he plays one of their national kid songs, he talks to them on their level and likes to have fun! Joey's a great role model on many levels in Azeri society. It's not too often you see a grown-up (man or woman) hanging out with kids and enjoying it. I'm a lucky lady to have married such a caring and wonderful man!

Monday, July 4, 2011


Hillary and I with our awesome 5th-grade girls!

School's out for a couple of months here in Azerbaijan, so that gives us the opportunity to travel around the country and see a few more places than we normally would throughout the scheduled school year.  Recently we headed West and spent a week in a village near Yevlax, where our friend Catharine was hosting a camp for the kids in her community.  It was great to get a new experience outside of our insulated Quba daily routine.  What struck me the most was that since it's a village (just a few roads here and there, a small school, a tiny market, and a soccer field), literally EVERYONE knows who Catharine is.  Our taxi driver was trying to find out where to drop us off, so he simply rolled down his window and asked "hey, where does the American live?"  Immediately a group of young boys pointed to a house down the street.

Throughout our week there, Hillary and I were in charge of a group of nine girls in the 5th grade.  Among the nine of them, they spoke about six words of English, so it was a great stretch for our Azeri language skills.  Regardless, we had an amazing time working with these girls on concepts like teamwork, patience, and kindness.  Each day there were team sessions in the morning, and then group activities in the afternoon.  Our girls were serious about coloring our poster with our team name (Dənizin Qızları, aka The Sea Girls), and making a metric ton of friendship bracelets.  At first, the kids didn't really seem to understand how a grown man would actually sit down with them and talk and play games and make bracelets with them, but after a couple days, they really seemed to recognize that Hillary and I actually WANTED to work with them and get to know them together...  the concept of a fun, healthy marriage seemed like kind of a new idea to them.  On our last day at camp, there was a very sweaty dance party, and lots of autographs.

We also had the chance to spend time with fellow Volunteers from other regions of Azerbaijan.  We're up in the "first finger" of the country, somewhat isolated from everything else because of a mountain range.  (In order for us to travel  anywhere, we must first get to the capital city of Baku, and then take a connecting bus.)  It was wonderful to check in with my friends from training, as well as other Volunteers who are on their second and third years in-country.  We operated as a team, planning our sessions daily, and working to throw together lunches and dinners.  At night, we rotated through a shower schedule, and enjoyed time at a picnic table outside talking about our lives at home and abroad, our conversations punctuated by cool breeze and occasional lightning storms. 

Next week we're heading to Zaqatala for an arts camp -- who's ready for guitar sing-alongs and some improv games?

Giving orders like a champ!

Our girls presenting about having patience. 
They did a skit about being a rude customer at the bazar!

Hand-making decorations for the end-of-camp party

PCVs going crazy during the dance portion of the party

A sweet young girl with her favorite PCV, Hillary!

This kid was awesome!  He jumped and giggled the whole time,
and insisted on getting a picture with me, even though I was tremendously sweaty.

Late-night chats with Katie, Irene, Julie, and Oruj

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The adventures of Jackie

About a month ago I was walking around the corner to my house and was distracted by some boys that usually come to my English club and they had not attended in the past few week. As I was asking how they were doing, I did not have my eyes on the path. I could feel the earth shake, the deep sounds of thumping, which all happened very fast, to then realize I was about to be trampled by a fast moving, huge cow.

In fact, I was not trampled. I apparently, have some very quick moves when I'm about to get run over by cows and the boys got some good laughs out of the situation. I quickly recovered and was able to safely enter my home without a scratch.

From my memory, I had never seen this cow before. We had only been in our house for about a month and the weather was still cold. Now, I realize this cow belongs to our next door neighbor family and since we have nicer weather and things like grass have greened up, I see her almost every day. Since 'the incident', I realize Jackie does not move that fast, so it makes me wonder about the day in question. Perhaps I was in the way of her grassy patch she'd been eying and she was getting there with some fierce speed or I remembered the speed of her humungous head nearing my face with a little more drama???

I do watch out when I turn the corner to see if she's coming but other than that I don't believe there is any other sustained psychological trama. To manage our relationship, Joey and I have affectionately named her Jackie. Every night when she is corralled into the gate, her voice loudly ecos over the wall as we eat our dinner and here's a bit of our typical conversation with her:

"Hello, Jackie"," Of course it was a good day"
"Good Night, Jackie",
"For goodness sakes, Jackie, enough"
"We said , Good Night"

We've found that having fake conversations are better than ones in person because people think we're crazy when we stop and talk to her on the road. Nobody, except us, seems to get a kick out of having a cow right outside the door.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Perspective for today

It is good I washed clothes and took a shower yesterday because today, for the moment/hours, there is no gas. That may sounds simple enough to accomplish those two tasks, however it is a bit of an ordeal to do either since it takes many hours to heat our hamam (Az word), klonka (Russian word) or water heater (English word) and washing clothes out of a bucket is a back-breaking job and who wouldn't delay that as long as possible?! In the photo you'll see two blue buckets for washing clothes, green for flushing. You can also see the big fire heating up in the corner. We do also have a shower head, but didn't make the photo.

For example, yesterday was a beautiful day, actually acting like Spring. Choices needed to be made, maximize the gas on such a day or do half of the laundry and go to the bazar for the week. Two loads in and nearing 2:00 the clouds began to roll in and the temperature dropped. Good choice to finish out the laundry and postpone the bazar.

As you can see, drying clothes might take a long time (ie: still soaking wet this morning) so while drying my now clean towel by the pech (our central stove), we multi-tasked by making tea, drying the towel and making pizza dough rise! Our lives are simple but A-OK.

By the way, our landlord just knocked and told me I could turn the gas back on since he was working on something 1) I understood him! 2) I can't see my breath yet so we're in better shape than last week when this happened!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Springtime in Quba

So our last significant snowfall hasn't been since March, but the month of April still managed to be quite cold. We've had some beautiful sunny days that give us hope of a warm and prosperous Spring, but sadly they don't outweigh the cold and dreary days.... YET. We're now living in our new home and really getting into the swing of our work here. We're slowyly figuring things out every day, but some things are starting to come into focus a bit better these days.

The biggest development here is that at the beginning of April, we moved into independent housing. This means that we now live in a small duplex-style home with our
landlords, an older couple whose children are in Baku. Mom's a teacher at the school next to my office, and dad's a beekeeper (he was all gussied up in his beekeeping outfit smoking out the bees this afternoon!). We've had an absolute BLAST cooking our own meals and getting creative with local ingredients. The great news is that we're back online, with semi-high speed internet access. (All it took was a couple trips across town, and a sad interaction with some awful salespeople that left Joey close to tears.)

Now that we have internet access, I will rekindle this dusty old blog with some pix and stories about Novruz. We are by no means experts on the event, but as first-time observers and participants,enjoy!

We celebrated the entry into Spring with our first Azerbaijani Novruz celebration. Preparation for the holiday mainly includes cleaning the home from top to bottom, and even our teenage host brothers pitched in for about fifteen minutes each. Otherwise,
there's a lot of cooking traditional dishes and baking a huge amount of pastries, and then eating everything for 3 days straight. There's very little going to the bakery to buy these items, which I would be more accustomed to do back home, yet there is immense pride in the complexity of the food and the pastries. Many people invited us to their homes to celebrate with food, as this holiday is focused around nature and the beginnings of tilling of soil, planting seeds and hoping that the earth will begin to turn green. We felt very welcomed. To encourage the seasons to change, there is also green wheat that is grown in anticipation.

Here's a picture of our Xalcha, which has 7 candles, fruit, nuts, candies, decorated eggs and some pastries in it. It's the traditional platter of goodies found in most Azeri homes during Novruz. (We were surprised to see PAAS-esque Easter egg wrappers too. My special egg was Minnie Mouse.) Did you know there are competitive egg-battles here? It goes like this -- each person takes a decorated egg, and two people slam the eggs together, and whichever one cracks first is the loser. The winner then takes the loser's egg. (But what will you do with a cracked egg?) Joey won a couple of times against a neighboring 7-year-old.

In preparation of the holiday, the young boys build bonfires, called tongal, and you can jump over it (literally jump through or over it) at least 3 times in order to leave the previous worries of last year behind and have a fresh start with Spring's fresh start.

{to the left is our host brother Emin, the tongal master}

I jumped seven times since my host brother said that the extra 4 jumps would make the year extra good! It was really interesting to see the entire street lined with bonfires, with the mountains in the background as the last signs of daylight turned into glowing orange along our road.

To finish out our stay at our host family home, host dad and his friend threw together a quick BBQ. Here in Azerbaijan, anything grilled is known as "kebab." While it is technically POSSIBLE for chicken to be grilled and served, the
real kebab is lamb. Now, our experiences with lamb and sheep meat here have been pretty awful... in Fall, there's a Muslim holiday that centers around slaughtering a sheep, and our home was filled with the stank of boiled sheep for days! (Even worse was the fact that our family insisted on serving up the organs first -- a delicacy known as jizbiz. YIKES!)

But kebab is a whole different story. Tender chunks of lamb are seasoned and put onto metal rods as the wooden chips start to smoke. (Fan the fire with an old piece of cardboard for maximum effectiveness.) When the chips are hot enough, the meat is set down just an inch or so above the fire, so it cooks quickly. Joey took over the grill for a
moment, and flipped the kebabs with expert ease. When the meat was ready, dinner was served for the entire family, and the nice place settings were used. It was a great ending to our time with our host family, and we even made toasts to our life and work in Azerbaijan.

Next up: our death-defying trip to the ancient village of Xinaliq! Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

have no fear

We are still alive and well. With the end of winter and all the Novruz festivities, along with less than ideal internet abilities, we have not posted in quite a while. Since we have off from work this week due to the holiday, we will be doing some traveling, moving on April 1st to our own home and with any luck we will have more frequent internet (and the keyboard might not randomly switch to a Russian keyboard - just spent the last 2 minutes figuring out how to get it back to English.) Needless to say, we've been quite busy saying goodbну (did it again!) to winter. 

When we have more time, I'll be sure to post about Novruz and the massive amount of food we've eaten and the fires we've jumped over. I think there are quite a few of these traditions Ощун(Joey) and I would like to bring home.

Since this keyboard is making me nuts, that's it for now. More interesting stories and events to come.

We love and miss you all at home. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Broken Pipes And Cactus Rays

Since Hillary’s done such a good job explaining what we’ve been up to for the past few weeks, I thought I’d give a glimpse into some of the odd things we’ve learned/experienced here in Quba.  Enjoy!
Gas:  You might have already seen the pictures, but our house is on a street covered with mud and road debris.  This is because the gas pipes “are being worked on.”  Before we arrived in December, our road was torn-up to gain access to the pipes.  I have not yet seen any municipal workers, or any kind of repairs taking place.  My host family explains that this is because the city of Quba is now secretly diverting gas to a village a few kilometers away.  The really don’t seem to care for the village people.
Deadly Rays:  In Hillary’s office, there are small potted cactus plants on a desk.  This is to absorb the nasty rays and bad energy that comes from the computer.  Don’t worry, it also works on televisions too!
Bus:  There is a giant bus parked on our street every night.  Like, a full-size Greyhound bus.  Apparently our neighbor is a busdriver with a route to Baku, and he just takes his ride home every night.  My host brother Emin said nonchalantly, “No problem, this bus very comfortable.”
Ice Cream:  In every market there’s an ice cream freezer, but at this point in the year it is filled with giant blocks of butter and salt-cured dried fish.  This is because it is “olmaz,” or not permissible to sell frozen treats in wintertime.  Why?  Well, if you eat ice cream in winter you’ll get sick of course!  (HOWEVER, when I was in Baku recently, the local Baskin-Robbins seemed to be doing pretty well.)
Table etiquette:  Last month some Azeri family friends dropped by for the 4-hour ritual that is “guesting,” i.e. dinner and vodka with friends.  We only have 4 chairs in our home, so we pushed the table over to the couch to accommodate everyone.  I was on the couch, leaning forward to hear the conversation.  It was cold, so I crossed my arms to keep warm.  As soon as he saw this, one guest quickly told me that this gesture was “so wrong,” and that I could only cross my arms at work.  If I cross them at home, it means that I will have a very bad career.  (When it happened again, the guy jumped out of his chair and started hitting my forearms to bring his point home.  Did I mention the vodka?)
He also explained that if you clear the entire table right after the end of the meal, you will only live to be 50 years old.  BUT, if you only clean up half the table, you can live to be 100.
Quba Mornings:  Like I said, our home is cold.  How cold, you ask?  Well, most mornings when I walk from the kitchen back to our bedroom after brushing my teeth, I can see my breath in front of me.
Pipes:  Houses in Azerbaijan are constructed out of concrete, so there’s no insulation.  This means that pipes freeze in wintertime.  Our family solves this problem by turning all faucets on full-blast overnight.  The outside sink is right below our room, so we fall asleep to the sound of our very own chilly rain forest.
Names:  While explaining my family tree to him, my host brother Ayaz became quite frustrated with the pronunciation of American names.  He asked “Why so many difficult names, there’s Robert, Jobert, Gorbert, so difficult.”  He further explained that Azeri names are so simple and easy.  Here’s a short list: Bilgeys, Etibar, Orxan, Mirjabiv, Qorsumaz, Ilkin, Ulker, Aygun, and Sezxan.  And those are just the first names.
Fame:  Last week, a high-school girl walked by me and said “Mr. Joey, why you don’t teach my class, Mr. Joey you are my best friend.”  I had never met this young lady.
As you can see, we’re absorbing a lot.  We'll work to keep you updated as often as we can... as long as we don't eat too much ice cream or cross our arms too often.

Much love from icy Azerbaijan!

 - Joey

January Highlights

  • We took 5 showers for the entire month. Just think of all the water we’re saving…
  • Hillary learned how to fold grape-leaf dolma for Joey’s 35th birthday dinner.
  • Discovered that Azeris love SwissMiss hot chocolate
  • If given the chance to cheat at Uno, some members of our family will take this opportunity
  • We ate the noisy rooster that sounded like it was saying ‘happy birthday’ or ‘happy new year’ when it crowed at all hours of the day.
  • A couch surfer from Spain randomly stayed at our house for 2 days due to our host brother’s connections. Her English was really good and we were able to mildly entertain her.
  • Started the process of learning how to make baklava (here it’s called paklava) by cracking a million walnuts. I still have the blood blister to prove it. FYI – you might want to go out, buy some, and thank whoever made it!
  • Had 10 folks from our neighboring town Xachmaz come to Quba for an afternoon visit. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the snow was melting but there was still enough for several snowball fights around our town.
  • Our first trip back to Baku resulted in great food (Indian, pseudo-Mexican, and Joey nearly went crazy for the opportunity to eat pork ribs!), hanging out with great people for the weekend, and getting affirmed by our first host family that our Azeri actually has improved!
  • One weekend, a family relative came by and took the boys out on a trip to see the Quba mountainside. Joey was able to see beautiful streams, mountains and a very happy horse.
  • I received a pink stuffed bunny from my host brother for our New Year celebration. Apparently it the year of the rabbit. This is also a gift that should be in photos for special occasions, like Joey’s birthday.
  • Joey got locked inside the toilet and I laughed a lot. Apparently the lock expanded on a warm day and our host dad had to pry him out. No more locking the door, so say goodbye to privacy! This later happened to our younger host brother, and Joey got to help rescue him. (What’s funnier – an American yelling for help in bad Azeri, or an Azeri yelling for help in bad English?)

Overall, January was a good month. We’re at the halfway point of living with our host family, which continues to help us with our cultural integration, for better or worse. For me, I was still waiting on a few things (like heat) for the activity room in my office, in order to get into the swing of my actual job of working with youth. At this point, never-ending patience has been my biggest accomplishment. Joey has been teaching up a storm and riling kids up throughout his school. As we walked around town last weekend, kids would shout “Hello, Mr. JOEY!” Looks like we’re starting to get noticed, for better or worse.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Welcome to Quba

This view was taken from one of the main roads looking towards the mountains. Don't be fooled, this quiet little town has a hectic bus station!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

It's Only Hair...

In anticipation of entering the unknown environment of Peace Corps, I began growing out my hair over the last year. My last trim occurred in late August; therefore finding split ends became one of my favorite past times over the last few weeks.

On Saturday, my host mom was going to the hair salon to lighten up her dark hair with some highlights and an overall blonder hair color and wondered if I wanted to get my hair cut. Sure, why not! I could stand a little trim with a lady my host mom trusts and it was only going to cost me about $3!

Sitting in a slightly warm concrete room in a plastic chair, I let the lady know that I just wanted a trim. I was then informed by my host mom that she is fact a hair expert and would I like to have her do the good work she usually does? I basically must give my permission for her to be the ‘expert’ since it would be disrespectful to say no. I look in the mirror, she’s got about 2 inches she’s about to cut off. Fine. Let those split ends go! During this moment, I am also celebrating the fact that I understand the conversation that has been entirely in Azerbaijani!

Within minutes, I’m watching 6-9 inches of hair fly off my head, seeing long bangs come into my present life and realizing shorter than shoulder length means a ponytail is no longer in my near future.

I give her credit, the cut looks good and I’m getting a lot of compliments HOWEVER, this does not change the fact that showering only occurs once a week in our household, and managing a haircut like this may be difficult. After the initial adjustment to less showering, I have found that days 1-4 are not that bad and my hair looks pretty normal, even light. For those of you back home, this is what you remember. From days 5-7, things get pretty rough and this is typically when people ask if I’ve dyed my hair and the ponytail had been an essential part of my look to keep things in order. Today is day 5.

Not knowing if this is a compliment or not, my host brother said I look more like an American now. He says I’m beautiful and likes to kiss me on the cheek. He’s 13.

In an environment where I am constantly learning and don’t feel especially good at anything, I seek solace in knowing that I am really skilled at growing my hair.

In the meantime, Wednesday is shower night!

(Written on January 17th. First photo taken on Joey's birthday - the love bunny will be explained at another time, the second photo taken in the internet cafe on January 18th... day 6)