Sunday, May 23, 2010


This entry of “derek and alicia in the ‘zerb” has been unusually difficult to begin. It is not a problem of knowing what to say, but where to start. Okay, so knowing exactly what to say may be a bit of a problem, too. First and foremost, these last two weeks have been daunting. Sabirabad city has still not flooded, but the surrounding villages have flooded again. The threat to the city is still looming, and because of that threat Peace Corps’ decision has been to keep Sabirabad closed to all Volunteers, PC vehicles, and Staff. We have remained with friends during this time.

It has been a game of “wait and see” in regards to the possibility of Sabirabad city flooding. So we have found ourselves in a weird and wearing situation. We have been in frequent contact with the PC Staff, and everyone seems to be in the same boat. No one can predict the future. At this point PC Azerbaijan is undecided on whether or not Sabirabad will be reopened. In the next two weeks we may be allowed to return briefly with a driver provided by the PC to grab the rest of our belongings, but will not stay.

On more than one occasion Alicia and I have talked about our future in Azerbaijan. It has been a long, and often, uphill battle. As we have talked about already in this blog, it has been good for us. We have learned so much. And for that, we are grateful. At this point we are waiting to for the possibility to go to Sabirabad and say our goodbyes. We are praying for closure on this, and never imagined leaving Azerbaijan under such circumstances.

To be clear, the Peace Corps had offered to relocate us to a different region in Azerbaijan. Most likely we would live out the rest of the summer bouncing from PCV to PCV, keeping what we could carry, and sleeping on floors and couches. We would essentially work with other PCV’s on their projects or camps, but wouldn’t have a home base. Before the floods we had decided to finish the school year and reassess our time here. The flood pulled us out of our community and put us in limbo. We’re using this time to see some other volunteers.

We aren’t sure about a time frame, but we will be returning to the States within the next few weeks. As I said we are waiting to see if Sabirabad will open back up momentarily so we can get our stuff and see our friends to say our goodbyes. Thanks to everyone for their thoughts and prayers for the people of Sabirabad during this time of difficulty. We also want to thank everyone for their support for us while we have been in Azerbaijan. I can’t begin to give you a detailed, or even a summary, of everything that we have experienced and learned. Just know that we are grateful for our time here and have learned life lessons that we will carry with us and learn from long after returning to the States. These last nine months have been a whirlwind of emotions and experiences, and we are happy to have shared a piece of it with you through this blog.

Our plans for the future are unsure. Our immediate plans involve returning to Alicia’s folks house where I will help on the farm over the summer. We’ll be bouncing around from Iowa to Missouri to see family and friends as well. We plan to, in time, relocate to Kansas City and will use Alicia’s parent’s home as a “homebase” to look for work and a home in KC, unless something else comes up. As I’ve said already, your support for us during our time in Azerbaijan is more appreciated than most of you will probably realize. Hope to see you all down the road and our next adventure. Cheers!

Derek and Alicia

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Pray for Sabirabad

In this entry of our blog we want to inform you as to what is going on in Sabirabad, and to ask for your thoughts and prayers for the people of Sabirabad and its surrounding villages.

This spring has been unusually rainy. For a few weeks it seemed like it rained every day, if not all day every day. Sabirabad is located on the Kür/ Araz River that runs through the middle of the country. Due to all of the rainfall, flooding has been a problem. The situation, as it is right now, transpired quickly. It began in the outer reaches of the region, flooding villages and displacing a limited amount of people. Tents and relief shelters started popping up around Sabirabad City, and have consistently grown for the last week and a half.

To be clear, the Region of Azerbaijan, or “county” that we live in, is called “Sabirabad”. Sabirabad contains many individual villages and Sabirabad City. Think of it as Iowa, and Iowa City (only the size of a small county). According to the last reports most villages in the region are under water. The city has been saved thus far, but fears are that it is only a matter of time before it is under water as well. Six to nine feet are expected.

It is for this reason that the Peace Corps has had us leave Sabirabad. We are currently staying with friends and fellow volunteers in Göyçay, located in the middle of the country. I received a phone call on Sunday at midnight and Alicia and I were instructed to pack our most valuable possessions, some clothes, and leave Sabirabad by 10am Monday morning. Needless to say it was a little overwhelming due to the fact that we ourselves had no idea how dangerous the situation was. After our phone call our minds began to wonder about all the people in Sabirabad who, like us, had been told that the river has been controlled, and everything will be O.K. Suddenly we were packing our bags in the middle of the night, leaving in the morning, and hadn’t talked to anyone about this newest piece of information.

Since leaving we have received word from some of our Azeri friends in Sabirabad. Around midnight on Monday one of my students who I meet with individually called and told me that the river had taken his village, water was running through his house, and he was heading for his grandmother’s in Sabirabad City. Two days later, his house is six to nine feet in water.
Alicia has spoke with one of her English students who she tutors, and her family is waiting for the water to come before leaving. All roads going in and out of Sabirabad are closed except for one. This creates a bottleneck situation, and in the event that the city begins taking in water, we are afraid that the one road out will be heavily congested, chaotic, and dangerous. Our hearts are heavy for our friends and the people of Sabirabad because, unlike us, many don’t have family or friends outside the region to go to. Because families live together, and people usually stay where they were born and grew up, it quickly diminishes the possibility of finding safe haven elsewhere. Not to mention, Alicia’s friend and her family’s only income is a store built into the side of their home. This is the situation for many people in Sabirabad, and was the situation for many of the villagers who have relocated to the city. They have begun filling the schools and football fields with displaced peoples. Our worry is where the people will go, and how efficiently and safely it will be handled, if they must evacuate the city.

It is for all these reasons that we are asking for your prayers. We have been out of site now for four days, and from the looks of things, even if it doesn’t flood in the city, it doesn’t seem that we will be returning anytime soon. We aren’t sure what kind of a time frame we are looking at, but at long as the water poses a threat, Peace Corps has advised us not to return to site. On top of this, there has not been running water for a few weeks, and electricity has been spotty. These reinforce our reasons for staying out of site for a while. We are leaving Göyçay soon, tomorrow or the next day, and aren’t sure whether we will move on to a different PCV’s home, or head into Baku to meet with our staff and country director. Being in limbo has been frustrating and stressful for us. In the event of a flood, our first floor apartment wouldn’t make it. We are reminding ourselves that stuff is just stuff, and the focus needs to be left on the people, but we can’t help but think of our gifts for others and mementos from here and Israel that are, in their own way, irreplaceable. Our selfish human nature creeps in and gets us thinking about our “stuff”, so please pray that we are able to stay focused.

Today was our first time on the Internet in a couple weeks, so our first chance to update you all as to what is going on. It has been great to spend time with our friends Meg and Rikki here in Göyçay. They have been ever so hospitable and welcomed us whole-heartedly. They even took us to their local sports complex yesterday and Alicia and I were able to sponge a shower out of the deal. The water was hot and the pressure was good. It was a good day.
We’ll keep you posted as new information and Internet becomes available. Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Man on the Run

Imagine for one moment that a young man left his family and all that he knew to venture off to a foreign land, better known as Azerbaijan. Little did he know what would be waiting for him. Little did he know that a brown eyed beauty would sweep over the landscape that was his life like a tornado. Little did he know that this tornado was about 120 pounds of sheer craziness.

So, we will leave this boy (and girl) nameless for mystery sake, but we will tell you that this young man is a friend of ours and a fellow volunteer. Derek and I are conjoining our writing efforts on this very special (and entertaining) edition of our life here in the ‘Zerb.

Our friend, let’s call him Jack, lives in a small village here in Az. He fell in love with his Azeri tutor, let’s call her Jill, after a month or so of lessons. Dear Jack is an easy-going, fun loving, and always very interesting guy.

Stories of this nature, no, sagas of this nature cannot be told with a simple introduction, body, and conclusion. To tell the story of Jack in Azerbaijan is not a beginning to end story. If it were, the narrator would be sure to forget things like; Jill breaking her foot after jumping out of a window to run away with him, or about the time he had all of his money stolen out from underneath his nose, due to his mistake of keeping his pin number with his bankcard. It is examples like these that one would retreat to in a moment desperately in need of comic relief, that would otherwise be unappreciated or overlooked had they been inserted in a body of a story.

Back to said story: So Jack loves Jill. Why not get married, right? Naturally. What do you gotta do to get married in Az? Run away for a few days, duh. Let’s not let the cat out of the back too early, though. We were not clued into any of these things until yesterday when Derek got a phone call from a man on the run: Fugitive Jack.

D: Hey, man. How’s it goin?

J: Uh, yah. Good. You guys got your own place now, right?

D: Uh, yah. We do. What’s up?

J: Well I’m kinda in a pickle. We’re on the run.

D: “We”? Who’s after you?

J: Everyone. We need a place to stay.

D: (laughing nervously) Well, we might be going out of town tomorrow, but let me call you back in the morning.

J: No, I’ll call you.

D: …Ok, are you safe?

J: Yah, yah…they’re just really mad. Ok, call ya tomorrow.

Next morning: Jack calls early (we’re still sleeping). Derek tells him we need a few minutes to wake up, call back in a few. Thirty minutes later, Derek gives him the go ahead to come on over. When Derek asks where they are, Jack responds with, “I have no idea. I think we’re close to Sabirabad.” Meanwhile, we know absolutely nothing about what he’s in and what we might have gotten ourselves into.

Around lunchtime, Jack gets into town with Jill. They come over, have some lunch, and Jack proceeds to fill us in on his interesting past three days. Apparently this wasn’t their first time running, which they casually told us by explaining why her foot was sore. You see, she broke it while jumping out of a window trying to escape her father while Jack was hiding in her cousin’s closet.

After getting the basic low-down if you will, we sat and got to know a little about Jill. They really are cute, the two of them. The language barrier…wow, what to say. Jack’s English sounds more like an Azeri’s now. On more than one occasion he said something to the effect of, “I told you, say him” or “Speak her now!” Awesome, really. He also asked me to translate between the two of them. He asked me to translate between he and his fiancée and he was serious. You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

I think it should also be noted that while we are writing this, Jill and Jack came to our bedroom door and knocked. Jack wanted us to know that Jill accidently erased all of the pictures on our camera and she’s sorry. So, now you know that we came to our room immediately (while they’re still here, even) and began writing this fantastic story.

Later this evening, Jack gets a call from his host family. Apparently they want to speak to Jill. Jack is frantically trying to get his host mother to hold on, speaking his broken Azeri until he finally comes out and tells her “Jill is in the toilet”. This is even funnier knowing that any talk of the “toilet” is olmas or completely embarrassing here. Gotta love Jack.

So one minute they’re talking about how many kids they want to have and the next Jack is saying things like, “Sure hope I don’t get kicked out next week.” Meanwhile Jill’s telling us that Jack wants to stay in Az forever. “Really?!?” we ask. “Sure,” Jack says with a grin and a wink that really says ‘No way’. Which brought a slap on the arm from Jill, saying, “Lie. Don’t say.”

When they don’t understand each other, they just speak louder. Jack get’s impatient, but then they’re both laughing about the whole thing a minute later. It’s unbelievable. They’re in a hurry to get married before Jill is married off to the boy her parents have chosen for her. When we show any concern about her family being upset she smiles and assures us that everything will be fine, that is why they run away. Apparently this is some kind of custom?

Maybe someday they’ll tell their grandchildren this same story and laugh about it. You might shoot up a prayer or two for Jack and Jill. Both Derek and I gave the advice that we felt obliged to give, and are now being supportive. They are determined.

Here’s to Jack and Jill. A true American-Azerbaijani love story. Just a day in the life, folks, just a day in the life.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Passing the time; An Update from the Other Half.

So, I (Alicia) have not written in quite some time. I apologize; I guess you could say there’s been a lack of motivation (and let’s be honest, D does a much better job than I). We’ve “settled” in to our new place and have been more than blessed by our landlords with the things we’ve needed. For instance, it’s still fairly cold here and we had no heat source in our first-floor apartment. We waited a few days and finally decided we were cold enough to go out and buy a space heater. We decided we would the next day. But before we could, our landlord dropped one off. I’m starting to wonder if he’s got this place wired. No, but really, they’ve been very good to us.

I’ve been making five-course meals on a hot plate. Okay, so maybe it’s more like beans, pasta, things of that nature, but I’m really REALLY grateful to have my own kitchen. We don’t have any kind of oven, so I can’t bake, but I’m happy to at least have a little opportunity. As most of you know, cooking is a huge stress reliever for me and I think the past few months have been especially hard because I haven’t been able. I also love to cook for Derek and I think it’s safe to say he’s glad I’m back at it. He actually said our first night in our place, “Baby, you’ve still got it.” I really was worried I’d lost it. To those of you that sent mac-n-cheese, I’m still a bit embarrassed. Thank you!

I know D already said, but Israel was phenomenal. I am so grateful that we were able to go. I literally spent thirty minutes at the airport trying to convince Derek that the Peace Corps wouldn’t miss us and we could just stay. I might have cried when we landed in AZ. Not ten minutes off of the plane, a lady stepped in front of me in the customs line (only one, surprisingly). She smiled at me self-approvingly and said “Babushka” (grandmother in Russian). Welcome back to Azerbaijan.

Before I answer a few of our good friend Tim’s questions, I wanted to talk a bit about the friendships we’ve made with our fellow PCV’s here. To be honest, this wasn’t something I thought much about before we left, but the people we are serving with here have proved to be a vital part of our lives. There are some amazing folks here. Some are fresh out of college, others have grandbabies that are being born back home without them. I have learned so much from them and they have been so encouraging. I am humbled by the kind words they say to Derek and I about being a married couple. I am proud of the work they do and their hopes for Azerbaijan. We can cry together, sing karaoke together, and share our different views together. I wish you could meet them.

On to some of Tim’s questions: Topic #3

What is dating/courtship like? What do people do for fun? What do people do for fun at night? At what age do people "settle down"? At what age do people not go out and party at night any more/become fuddy duddies?

Dating/courtship…great question and a bit hard to answer. Marriages are usually arranged in Azerbaijan. When you ask many people how they met their husband/wife, they are likely going to tell you that 1) they are relatives (ex. Their mothers are sisters and arranged the marriage. Marrying a first cousin is legal and normal), 2) Their family found their spouse for them. Because things are arranged, there is no “dating or courtship” going on. If you ask people if dating goes on here, they will tell you yes, but only in Baku. Especially in our conservative region, it is shameful for a girl to spend time with a boy alone. Women are also not “allowed” to go to restaurants and tea houses here, so there is very little to do on a date. People do meet on the internet, though, and talk on the phone. In some instances, girls that are very assertive decide to stay single and pursue a career (very rarely). I would say that the dating culture here is part of what is developing. More and more people are choosing spouses for themselves.

Once a couple is engaged, they might spend time together at family functions, but never alone. Marrying for love, as most of us do in America, is kind of a different concept here. Some do, but most often they do not know their spouse before they are married.

What do people do for fun and at night? I would love to know, ha! Men can often be seen at “çay xanas” (tea houses) both during the day and at night. In Sabirabad, there is little work right now, so men are often out during the day with their friends. Once, while one of my students was walking home with me, I asked him why there were no women at the çay xana (though I knew the answer). He said, “They don’t go.” I said, “Don’t women like to drink tea?” To which he responded, “Yes of course, but at home.” Men also get together at home or çay xanas to play dominos or checkers. There are no bars in Sabirabad. The only place I’ve really ever seen them is in Baku.

For women, all of this is a different story. As I said before, women do not go to çay xanas or restaurants because it is shameful. I have even had a lot of trouble finding women that will meet with me at the youth center (by trouble, I mean no one will come). Women are, for the most part, very busy. For instance, the teachers I work with will teach until 1:00 p.m. or later, then go home and do laundry, make meals, clean the house, and other household responsibilities. They have no “social” time available to them. This does not mean they would not like to, though.

In the summer, many people go to the river to have picnics. Men and boys might swim. They will grill kebab and lay on blankets when the weather is nice.

“Toys” or weddings are a big social extravaganza. There is delicious food, dancing, and large tables with many guests. We have been to two so far and, though some things were similar, they were very different. At the most recent toy we went to, women sat on one side of the room and men on the other. Men and women also did not dance together. While men were on the dance floor, women were sitting down or having their picture taken with the bride and groom. Toys are a good opportunity for people to dress in their best clothes and spend time together. Most girls here love hair and makeup.

At what age do people “settle down”? There are a few ways to answer this question. First, I will return to the marriage talk. It is very common for women to marry as young as eighteen. If they do not study after High School, they marry. In some regions, it is rumored that girls marry as young as thirteen. For men, on the other hand, it is common for them to marry later. Many men are in their late twenties before they take a spouse.

After marrying, it is most common for the bride and groom to move in with his family. The bride will assume many of the household responsibilities alongside her mother-in-law. Children are also very prized here, so many times young couples start having a family right away. I am asked all of the time why I don’t have any children because I have been married for almost four years. They are also very intrigued with methods of birth control J. I have had some pretty interesting conversations in my limited Azeri. Ask me some time in person. I’ve got stories.

Over all, marriage is very, very common and at a young age. To remain single is somewhat odd and many parents discourage it. Just because you marry, though, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re “settling down”, specifically for the man. I can elaborate on this in person as well.

At what age do people not go out and party at night any more/become fuddy duddies? Well, as I’ve already said, not much “partying” goes on here. It is very common, though, for men to stay out as late as they please. I have not really seen an age limit to that, yet.

One interesting topic about girls here is how they transition from trying to be “trendy” to wearing “xanam” or lady attire. Everywhere in Azerbaijan you will find women wearing “xanam” clothes or house clothes. We’re talking polyester jump suits or long moo-moos. Girls as young as High School age can be seen dressed this way. My friend Shira, a volunteer here, definitely just bought her “summer” xanam wear. It doesn’t get much more settled down than that.

An example of the difference between people here, though, is our previous host family. Our host father is a homebody. He enjoys watching T.V. and working in the garden. Our host mom, however, loves going to the neighbor’s or out to the country where most of her family lives. Whenever she gets a chance, she will leave to see her sisters. Spending time with family is the biggest social scene among women I’ve witnessed here and I must say, it’s refreshing. I miss my sisters even more by watching my host mom interact with her own.

I hope I’ve at least begun to answer these questions for you. Please know that there is much more I could say, but I must remain politically correct (at least I tried to). As you can see, being a woman here is very different than being a woman back home. You might consider my friends here next time you’re having lunch with a friend or meeting up for drinks after work. Also, I must say that I am so grateful for Derek and the help he is in our home. Thanks Mama Debby, Deidra, and Dacia for grooming him for me!

Keep the questions comin’ and God bless! - Alicia

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Living Alone at Last

For the first time in about three years, Alicia and I have our own place.

Wha? Three years? I don’t understand.

Well about a year after we were married, Alicia and I, along with a few friends, all rented a house and moved in together. After we were accepted by the Peace Corps to come to Azerbaijan, we moved out of Joplin, and in with each set of parents for about a month apiece. Upon arriving in Azerbaijan, we moved in with a host family for training, another host family after moving to site, and now, for the first time in three years, we have our own apartment. It was quite an adventure getting here.

I won’t bore with the play-by-play details of how many hoops we painfully, strategically, and luckily jumped through in order to acquire our apartment. Let’s just say that we are grateful to be here, and it quite literally took divine intervention before we could convince our faux realtor that a “house that isn’t so bad, has no indoor plumping, and no heat, but is within our price range, and we would be completely alone except for the fifty three year old woman living in the next room” was not what we were looking for, nor would we take.

So I am pleased to say that I am writing you from an old soviet style apartment, with two chairs, (one of which I am seated), a rug, refrigerator, a hot plate and electric kettle, and two beds pushed together. Home sweet home.

We have returned from Israel. Entirely too soon I may add. Our time with Matt, Robin, Hadassah, Matan, and Gabriel was exactly what we needed. It was so good to see the kids and to spend time with Matt and Robin. We had a first class tour of Israel without looking too much like tourists. Using their residence in Beer Sheva as “home base”, we traveled to Nazareth, Tiberias, Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem, and the Dead Sea in the Negev Desert. It was an incredible experience to see the Holy Lands. Sites visited:


Church of Annunciation, (Mary’s home), St. Joseph’s Church, Mary’s Well.

Sea of Galilee:

Mount of Beatitudes, Tabga (feeding of 5,000), Job’s Spring (where disciples washed their nets), Jesus’ Cave (prayer site), Capernaum, St. Peter’s House, Synagogue where Jesus said, “I am the bread of life”, Mount Tabor (Site of Transfiguration), Nain.


Church of All Nations, Garden of Gethsemane, Grotto of Gethsemane (Judas betrayal site), Tomb of Mary, Via Dolorosa and Stations of the Cross, Church of Flagellation, Church of Condemnation, Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Golgotha, Jesus’ Tomb), Mount Zion, Tomb of David, The Upper Room, Western Wall (Wailing Wall).

Day 2:

Kideron Valley (Tomb of Absolom/Zecheriah), Temple Mount, Palm Sunday Procession from atop the Mount of Olives down the mountain through the Lion’s Gate, Church of St. Anne (Mary’s mother/Mary’s birthplace), Pools of Bethesda.

Day 3:

We tried to go to Bethlehem, but were turned away at the wall due to riots. Jewish holy site; Rachel’s Tomb.


Herod’s desert fortress near the Dead Sea (Negev Desert), floated the Dead Sea.

I apologize for the long list, but I feel I would have left something great out had I not included a list of where we went and what we saw. If anyone has any further questions on the historical or spiritual significance of these sites, feel free to leave a comment or consult your closest Bible, Theology major, or Google™ web browser.

If you thought you were getting off the hook that easy, think again. Keeping up with my theme and my word, I will answer another question posed by my good friend Tim Fisher. Tim has given me a broad range of questions to choose from. If you would like to ask a question, no matter how broad or specific, please do.

Tim’s Topic: Q #2.

How important is religion? Is the religion primarily Muslim as you expected? Do people really take their religion seriously or just "go to church"? How is religion (if at all) entwined with custom and law (requiring headscarves, no drinking, taking shoes off when entering a building, that kinda thing), have you experienced a religious service at the state religion's church?

This is a fantastic question that does not have an easy answer. I will do my best to convey my findings in an understandable, easy to read manner. However, please remember that I will apply what I have seen and heard in Sabirabad, not the country as a whole.

How important is religion? It is difficult for me to determine exactly how important religion is, because I tend to compare it to how devoutly it is carried out. I would argue that this is not fair. Azerbaijan is primarily Muslim. Ninety-three percent is what Wikipedia says. Sabirabad, so I have been told, is one of the more conservative regions in the country. What does this mean?

When I say conservative, I am referring to the bylaws of Islam. I do not want to overstep my bounds, nor sound like any kind of an expert on the subject, but within Islamic culture there are rules, specifically gender rules, that can be applied, and perhaps exaggerated. I would argue that Sabirabad is an exaggerator of those bylaws. Of course we cannot apply this to Islamic culture, nor peoples, worldwide. Many western Muslims would not be able to relate with the “status quo” of Azerbaijan. I will not address Islamic culture elsewhere, nor will I pretend to know much of anything about it. Simply put, I see a lot of emphasis on Islamic rules/culture in favor of everything alpha patriarchal, for reasons other than religious devotion.

Islam gives the Azeri people an identity. For such a young country, whose history is riddled with different rulers, Islam is a place to put ones foot down and say, “Yes, we are Muslim.” Such assurances are harder to come by when asking different questions, i.e; Ethnicity, education levels, average income, ranking on global status, etc.

“Going to Church” theology is not as common here. I walk by the local Mosque nearly everyday. I usually see a few sets of shoes beside the front door. There is a call of prayer everyday, five times a day, three at the least. If I am not mistaken, in more devout Islamic countries, if it is time to pray, you stop where you are and pray. Obviously not every person does, but at least it would not be uncommon to see someone praying in public during the call. I have never seen anyone praying in public here. Perhaps it is happening much more often at home. The one Azeri that I have seen pray, was our first host mother. In our two months there, I saw her pray a few times. Again, I’m unaware of what she did in her own time. Perhaps she began praying in her room in order to make us feel more comfortable. Perhaps she prayed silently. For all I know, every person in Sabirabad may pray silently when the call of prayer is on.

Along with the bylaws/cultural impact of Islam in Sabirabad are the head coverings. I see a lot more hijabs in Sabirabad than I have seen elsewhere. There is a difference between a hijab and a scarf. Many women in Sabirabad wear a scarf while walking from home to the market, or if they are outside, to keep their heads warm. It’s also culturally trendy. But I see many more hijabs here than I have seen elsewhere.

As far as I know there is nothing in the laws about head coverings. The customs here though do represent an Islamic majority, but not everything. Many customs are native to Azerbaijan. A few, for example;

Wearing shoes indoors – Never

Showing someone the bottom of your feet – Okay, no big deal.

Tea tea tea tea and more tea – Always drink it, always have it, always serve it to anyone who walks through your door.

Feed your guests – If someone stops by to borrow a cup of sugar, they will be told to: “Come, sit, eat bread!” Usually three times before refusal is accepted.

Bread - Always have it, eat a ton of it. Never place it face down on the table, never let it touch the ground, after eating immediately wipe the table! No crumbs left behind. If the bread has gone stale, it is improper to throw it away with the rest of the garbage. It is placed in a separate bag, hanging off the ground, and disposed of later, after all the other trash has been removed. Bread doubles as a napkin.

Cigarettes – Everyone except their mother smokes here. It is inappropriate for women to smoke here. It is rare to meet a man who does not smoke.

Whistling Indoors – Only if you want to welcome the bad spirits. Don’t do it.

Shaking hands. Men with women, vice versa. - It happens here a lot more than I thought it would. Pretty much every woman I meet who is married or older than me will extend her hand. The only women I don’t offer a handshake is younger single women or teenage girls.

Men holding hands/interlocking arms/kissing - It is totally normal for two male friends to walk down the street hold hands or interlocking arms and to have their heads close together as they walk and talk. When they depart they kiss whilst still holding hands/arms interlocked. It’s totally normal.

There are a lot of cultural things here that I have picked up on that I am sure I am forgetting, but I think you have heard enough for one day. Remember, if you want to hear about anything, please let me know. Thanks for reading. Hope you have a great one.


-Derek and Alicia

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

New layout, Taking Requests, and a Trip to the Holy Lands.

Greetings and Salutations,

Things are looking a little different around here. The blog's layout has changed, for the better I hope. The beard is gone, although I thought I would add this picture as a small commemoration. The weather is changing, I'm quite certain I will prefer Spring. And finally, in eleven short days Alicia and I will be heading to Israel for a two week vacation. On top of all this we are currently looking for our own house, hoping to secure it before we leave for Israel. Things are changing.

In this installment of "derek and alicia in the 'zerb" I want to address these changes that I have mentioned, as well as an idea my good friend Tim Fisher has given me. In a recent effort to find a purpose for the blog, rather than the 'ole run of the mill, "this is what we are doing, this is how the weather is, yadda yadda", Tim e-mail me with a compiled list of topics he would enjoy reading about.

Tim and I are like minded, both studied history at MSSU, enjoyed the same professors, and had many a conversations of cultural, history, and life in general. For these reasons I jumped at this chance to discuss, in a historically interpretive modus operandi, my views of cultural life in Azerbaijan. "Grade A" academia you ask? Let's not set ourselves up for disappointment.

Perhaps my writing on a particular topic will give you a better insight to Azerbaijan, its people, and, as carefully, tactfully, and culturally sensitively as possible, their government. I would love to hear your ideas for topics to write on. Tim has given me more than enough to keep me busy, and in doing so, perhaps the blog itself will receive more attention from me, and possibly more reading from viewers like you.

So let's talk about what's changing. The Peace Corps has recently given us the go ahead to move out! Policy for all PCV's is to live with a host family for the first four months after moving to their respective permanent site. Beginning April 1st, we will have the green light. Many of our friends have already found a house to rent. Interestingly enough, reality companies aren't a big hit here in Sabirabad, so finding those vacant homes has proven tricky. Alicia and I have put the word out. We are anxiously awaiting a bite, even a nibble would work. Our host family has been fine, the majority of the time, but we are ready to spread our wings, get our own place, cook our own food, and wear a few less articles of clothing about 100% of the time.

My four month beard growing extravaganza, formerly known as "Whiskerino", is finished. This was the last chapter of Whiskerino, and I was happy to participate from Azerbaijan. My beard is gone. The people of Azerbaijan are quite pleased. Enough so to stop me on the street and tell me that I'm not ugly anymore.

Spring has nearly sprung. It's currently waiting in the wings. Because we are located in the south central area of Azerbaijan, we will be warming up a little quicker. The weather right now is much like that of Joplin, Missouri. One day it is 65 degrees and sunny, the next is cold and miserable. Every time I get the slightest bit anxious and ask my host mother if Spring has come and the weather will be nice from here on out, she tells me;
"No, it will be cold again, and I'm worried that Şamaxı will be hit with a hurricane. I know, I'm psychic."
Şamaxı is a town about 2 hours away, in the middle of Azerbaijan. I'm not holding my breath. But in all seriousness, she has been right about the weather before, and she isn't crazy, she is a sweetie.

To round out the winds of change, Alicia and I will be visiting Israel, leaving the 21st of this month, returning April, 4th. We are excited to visit. Alicia's brother Matthew lives there with his wife Robin and their three children. We are anxious to see the kids and spend time with them. Matt has planned for us to see the sites of Israel. It's slightly mind boggling to think about visiting a place with so much history. I have explained to my students that this is a Christian's Mecca, of sorts. Alicia and I are excited to see where our religion's history began, and to attend Mass with Matt and his family. We have missed having a place to worship in Azerbaijan. Israel will be just the "re-booster" that Alicia and I need.

Tim's Topic: #1
Q: Describe the society in Azerbaijan. Talk to me about the rural vs. urban population differences, education levels, average incomes. How do the poor live? The rich? What is an example of an average guy making a living?

Keeping in mind that everything I have experienced and "know" about Azerbaijan comes from a guy who has been here for 6 months. I think this is important to remember. You as a reader must determine how reliable my information is, given my lack of understanding of the culture, language barrier, and my interpretation of what happens around me, compared to what actually is. I personally feel I've got it pretty close to right. Decide for yourself.

It is safe to say that Azerbaijan is a developing country with a developing way of thinking. It is not safe to say, as a whole, their way of thinking is modern. Behold, the "Baku dynamic." Baku has a population of 2, 039, 7oo, in a country of roughly nine million. (baku It is quickly developing and home to a booming oil economy. The city, at a glance, is very westernized. Needless to say, what happens in Baku, really doesn't happen anywhere else. I've heard it described as "The Disney Land of Azerbaijan."

This gives natives in the regions, (countryside) a trump card defending modernity in Azerbaijan. When asked what is "allowed and not allowed", referring to gender roles and practices, the usual response is, "Well not here, but in Baku, they do that. It's okay in Baku."

The differences in rural vs. urban populations is drastic. It is what one would expect though, I would argue. The less developed, country side, or periphery of the core of the country and development, would, by default, be more traditional, conservative, and religious. In the regions people dress more traditionally. Typical dress for men would be black trousers, sweater or dress shirt, black jacket and black dress shoes. Professional women, dress the same, with respect to more feminine styles. Women who stay home wear sweat suits, heavy knit sweater vests, thick colorful socks (pulled over the bottom of the pant legs) and usually have a scarf head covering. These women are known as "Xanam", the azeri word for "lady". If someone refers to another as, "A nice old Xanam", they aren't talking about just any member of the female sex.

Gender roles are strong and well defined in the regions, and rarely broken. For westerners this is difficult to live with, especially western women. Opinions about gender roles become almost militant when outside opinion enters the circle of thought. I have had hands waved in my face, telling me to leave/shut up/go away, for asking if men would ever share domestic responsibilities, even if those men are unemployed and stay home.

Education levels and average incomes would seem to go hand in hand. They do not here. Keeping in mind my desire to be a-political and sensitive, I will simply say, a higher education does not imply that you will receive a higher paying job. Alicia has told me about her students in the 9th, 10th, and 11th grades. The boys are not interested in school, nor are they required, after 16, to attend. When asked, "What will you do?", the usual response is, "I will be a driver." Because the oil boom economy has not reached the regions, in the sense of providing jobs, work can be difficult to find.

In Sabirabad the most prevalent form of work is driving a taxi. Regulations to be a taxi driver are simple, pay a tax, and you're a driver. Each taxi drives his own car, the little yellow sign is extra. The problem with being a taxi is everyone is a taxi. Near the post office, on the main road in Sabirabad, the street is lined on both sides in each direction with drivers awaiting their next fare.

At the college, the majority of my students are female. Typically the girls will complete college and stay at home, unless they are later married off, at which point they will live with their husband's family, and stay home. College is not necessarily a means to a job, but a husband. When I poll my class, the majority of girls want to work. Laziness is not the issue.

I have not met anyone who is rich. Alicia and I guested at a family's home who had done well in their life. Their father had been a driver for a foreign oil company and had made enough to retire and send his two sons to universities in Baku. In my mind he had done quite well, and made good decisions, but I don't think rich is fair. I commended him for his desire to push his sons to succeed and to study English. In doing so he had produced two of the better English speakers in Sabirabad that I have met. They want to travel, experience different cultures, and to make their father proud. They will do well.

Those who can afford to go to Universities in Baku, go. Men mostly. Every once in a while you hear of a father sending his daughter to the University, but in the regions, that is practiced quite minimally. It is the sons who are invested in.

The government provides a pension to anyone over the age of 55. No one in Azerbaijan is starving. An extreme few are homeless. In this culture, families take care of each other. If a family is poor, they are poor together. They share what they can when they can. Because food is so inexpensive, and families pool resources, no one goes without. Poverty is usually best seen in housing conditions. Drafty homes, poor maintained pit or trench style outdoor toilets, no showers, or no hot water heater. Rarely are homes without gas or electricity. Because families stick together, homes are shared and maintained within the family. Pensions are almost exclusively spent on food. I have never heard of a house payment as a complaint. Utilities, by American standards, are dirt cheap.
In the regions, women and the elderly stay home. Men go to restaurants, tea houses, and the market. Because there is a lack of entertainment, people are spending their money on food, utilities, cigarettes (.60-$1 a pack), and occasionally clothes. I say this cautiously, and thinking not out of amenities, but necessities, poverty in Azerbaijan is not what needs reforming.

This concludes my first "topic". I hope you enjoyed it. Please let me know what would be interesting to hear about. Thanks for following along with us. If not before, I will update you all from Israel. Take care!


Friday, February 12, 2010

Procrastination Defeated!

Hello All,

As I look back over our blog I realize what terrible bloggers we actually are. We seem to post erratically at best, and I’m not really sure when the last time Alicia even looked at the page. This is not an attempt by us to dissolve our blog, nor drive you to “stop following”. Simply put, we aren’t the best at keeping our cyber lives up to date. With all that being said, we say a hearty “thank you” for reading and for all your thoughts and prayers. They mean more than you probably realize.

So where are we now? If I had to guess I would say we are on the cusp of cultural saturation. We are into our fifth month of living in Azerbaijan, and to our surprise and delight, many things that were once shocking and uncomfortable, are daily routine. The awkwardness is still there, and it always will be, but not nearly to the exponential degree it was. Better said, we just aren’t fazed like we used to be. The little things don’t make us cry, scream, or curse, they make us laugh, smile, and shake our heads. Does this mean we are impenetrable forces; former shells of once westernized babes, ready to give up our comfort pursuing, capitalist sculpted minds, in exchange for a life entirely new and daring? No, not really. We still like our coffee quick and hot, our Mac-n-Cheese™ extra cheesy, and we occasionally get lost in conversations of new cars, homes, and materialism.

But we have changed. We appreciate more, and want less. Waste has been brought to our attention. Patience is good; it can make your life easier. The environment IS as important as some people say. Serving others is not always easy, nor is there an instruction manual by which to follow. I used to think the American school system was bad, now I know better. Saying “hello” and “how are you” to everyone in the grocery store, regardless if you really care how they are doing, is still better (in my mind) than the alternative. I love women and their rights, and they can rule the world for all I care. Civil liberties, the taboos against prejudice and racism, and programs for school children with special needs in the States, all remind me of things we take for granted. These are not universal rights, and remembering that can be difficult at times.

But we, as Americans, do not have all the answers. We could take better care of our guests, make enough food for anyone who may happen to stop by, and be content with spending time with family and friends as a means of entertainment. Everything that works for us, doesn’t necessarily work for others.

If this has turned into a sermon of sorts, my apologies, we are learning right along with everyone else. These are just some things that I have noticed and hope to apply to my life after coming home. The most common questions we get here are; “How do you like it here?”, “Do you like Azerbaijani food?”, and “Which is better, there (US) or here?”. That last question has become more and more difficult to answer as of late. We always just say, “They are different, we are American, so we like America, but they are just different.”

“Okay, enough already, get off your soapbox, what are you even doing there anyway?” If this is what is going through your mind well this next part is for you. Thanks for sticking around until now.

Alicia is still teaching with three teachers in a number of different classes everyday. She has age groups from young children, six to seven years old, to older kids fourteen and fifteen. After school, Alicia will usually meet me at the Youth Center to surf the net for an hour or so before heading home for lunch. For the last month I have been teaching two ninety-minute classes two days a week at the local college. There are about fifteen students in each class and things seem to be going well. I recently just picked up a third class. The students have many questions about America and enjoy practicing their English. I’ve actually had other teachers come and sit in on my classes, even participate in the games of hangman, word scramble, and grammar exercises. I really enjoy going to the college. I am also meeting with a few guys at the youth center two days a week for an english club.

We have traveled for the last few weekends, to different sites, visiting friends and what not. It is good for us to get out of the house on the weekends. This weekend we are going to Baku for Valentines Day. We have been looking forward to American food, shopping, and not being stared at for a couple weeks now. :)


Derek & Alicia