How can I sum up two years of people, lessons, conversations, sights, and sounds?
It’s been a week since I’ve arrived back home. I unpacked my bags and tucked everything away. Besides journal entries, a pair of battered gray Converse sneakers, and intangible photos on my hard drive, there is very little evidence of my having been away at all. I went with two check-in bags and one carry-on. I came back with two check-in bags and one carry-on, and that’s it.
My body knows things. Thanks to jet lag, I’ve been waking up at 3 a.m., lying in bed and waiting as mist-sifted morning light begins to diffuse into the room. Then a little later, the dog denies me any poetic reflections by irritably fidgeting and huffing through his nose, indicating his readiness for the imminent morning walk. It’s good to be home.
There are so many stories to write about, but as I stretch fingertips over keyboard, they get caught, like they’re inside my knuckles and refuse to spill out into type. And then I catch myself. You know what? If I had it all figured out, then there’d be something awry.
You can’t have a neat and tidy conclusion, after two years of… of what, exactly? Miscommunication and connection, friendship, bad roads, cold winters, hot summers, mosquito bites scattered on ankles, philosophical chats aided by awful Russian vodka, pens of students scratching away at thin notebooks, loneliness, exhilaration, fear, pride?
When I got my invitation letter in the mail, I didn’t feel like I was on top of the world. I knew I was taking a risk and plunging into the great unknown. I had talked to RPCVs, who always seemed so self-effacing yet self-assured about their experiences, and I wanted to get in on the club.
I thought I was a step ahead of the rest, too. I thought I was clever. I had heard the narrative of “I went to help them, but they ended up helping me” so many times about volunteering abroad or traveling to exotic places. I thought I could preempt that idea – I wanted to help, but I told myself that on the hard days, my only goal was to challenge myself, and myself alone. Personal growth would be enough of an incentive to keep going.
I wasn’t entirely silly. That principle carried me through troubled times. There were days when students, instead of taking interest in my lessons, would howl disrespectful words at me, and adults stood by and watched and laughed. There were days my arguments were dismissed, on the basis of my gender and my age. There were days I simply didn’t know anything – I didn’t know how to teach a grammar structure, or pour fresh tea for a guest, or light up the heater for hot water – and I had to ask and learn. So I buckled down. I told myself, if you get through this day, you’ve done it for yourself, and for you alone.
But the urge to help is no weak force, either. The world, that has such people in it, is a wonder – an imperfect, disorderly wonder. Peace Corps Volunteers are sent to places that ask for them, and when you see so many things wanting change, you want to pitch in. When my host mother was overwhelmed, cleaning up the house after the men of the family, I strove to keep my room as neat as I could (she still cleaned it, anyway). I looked over my host cousin’s English language practice exams, even when I hated its flawed format. When the challenge was big, unspeakably labyrinthine in its secret effects and causes, I wanted to help so bad it hurt, even if I didn’t or couldn’t.
More often than not, I felt like what I did was a grain of sand on a sandcastle on a wide, long shore. I didn’t join Peace Corps wanting to change the world, but neither did I realize how vast the world is.
A few months passed in Azerbaijan, and I felt comfortable enough to talk confidently with PCVs and people at home about this foreign culture. And then the strangest thing happened. More and more months went by. Two years went by. And I realized I knew very little after all, and was pretty little person myself.
I’ve contributed my little bit. I want to continue to contribute. The world might be big, but every corner and every person has its personal meaning. And there are too many things to learn and people to meet for me to ever rest knowingly on a set of laurels.
I can’t speak for other volunteers, and I don’t want to; that would be generalizing a million experiences and taking away from the richness of everyone’s individual journey. I will say for myself that my service was extremely difficult. I wanted to quit. I was close to quitting, many times. I doubted myself. I blamed, I struggled, I learned. And it was worth every day.
Thank you for reading this blog. It was a pleasure to write and meant mainly for my own reflection, but I hope that you have enjoyed it – my silliness and all. Thank you to my family and friends who supported me all this way and are now welcoming me home. Thank you, Azerbaijan, and all the people in it. You may not know it, but you’ve changed me. Thank you, thank you, thank you everyone, and please tell me all your stories.
I heard the howls from the children long before I heard their mad scramble into the cellar.
“WHERE’S THE CHICKEN GONE?”
“Did a cat get it?”
“Where is it it?”
“WHERE’D IT GO?”
My belongings and time, given away to my Azerbaijani hosts in these last days, are dwindling, but strangely, life continues as normal. It doesn’t feel like I’ll be leaving site soon, or that in a matter of weeks I’ll be on a plane on my way back to California, not knowing when I’ll see these people, this place, again.
I’m just going to school again, right? I’ll just face another Azerbaijani winter without proper insulation or consistent electricity, right? My host family will just get another chicken from their village relatives, truss up its legs, and stick it cellar to await slaughter, and have to chase it when it apparently gets loose… again… right?
In the Peace Corps, life is hard and simple. I’ve written before about the loss of control you feel – how this entire foreign world floods through your doors, and basic tasks become baffling adventures. There’s no distractions. You don’t even think of shirking – you’re too busy wondering how you’re going to get things done. You simply do.
Here, when the sky threatens rain, I calculate how much rice and lentils to snatch from the shop, before the road to my house becomes an impassable ordeal of slick mud. When my students misbehave, I chart out, ponderously, a corrective speech in foreign words, in a language, that is not my own. When the season is right, I can treasure the ruby-dark radiance of pomegranate seeds, with their sweet and sour juices – I can’t get them unless it’s autumn.
Get-togethers with other Americans are slow, leisurely things. Lacking restaurants, movie theaters, or concerts – maybe electricity, internet, and gas – we play cards, talk about the same topics, and cook to pass the long hours. My thoughts chase themselves in circles on the too hot and too cold days when I sweat or freeze, waiting out the weather with my host family.
And, in a matter of weeks, I will face the life of an American, and on top of that, an incredibly fortunate one. Life will feel effortless but complicated.
With so much technology, information, and choice, the pace will be faster, the tasks more elaborate. I’ll fill out job applications. I’ll go down to the store to get my smartphone fixed. I’ll scrutinize my bank accounts and contemplate insurance, online. Glowing digital screens will fill my sightline, a swarm of distractions.
And blissfully, going to see a friend only forty minutes away will require a hop into the car or the reliable subway. I can get a delicious sandwich in minutes from a nearby shop whether its rainy or sunny, cold or hot. The fact that I’m a woman will not stop me from eating in a public restaurant, or wearing shorts, or sitting comfortably on my bum while a man (gasp, a MAN!) washes the dishes instead.
I will miss Peace Corps life as much as I will welcome my complicated American one. I don’t like my electricity going out periodically, but I do love fresh pomegranates. I don’t like the ceaseless temptation of a fresh email popping up on my smartphone, but I do love the slight give as your car rolls down the driveway out, out to the smooth road and to dozens of possibilities, friends, and family, within the easy grip of your hand on the wheel and the touch of your foot on the pedal.
When I think of the conversations I have in both places, I wish I could meld them together and combine them: Azerbaijani forbearance in the face of bad roads, continual family illness, the troubles of an emerging country, and American optimism and sincerity.
But we can’t have it all. Who knows? Maybe I shouldn’t speak to soon. I might be chasing chickens before I know it. (And for those who were wondering, my host family did indeed find it eventually, and slaughtered it. It was delicious.)
Autumn is ripe with beginnings and endings. The advancing chill feels like the breath of the coming winter blues – I’ve begun fortifying myself against them with doses of bad coffee, the last of a dwindling stash. A hot bitter cup keeps me sharp as I pack away my things, bit by bit, during my last month in Jalilabad.
Weddings are storming the banquet halls around town. It’s their last blitz before November, upon which this year’s Muharram falls. Muharram is a Muslim period of mourning and reflection, and as such weddings or joyous occasions are forbidden.
For weddings, I usually just show up to the banquet for food and loud music, but recently I accompanied a groom’s friends and relatives on the pre-banquet train. I was friends with his mother, Sabuha, who had been busy for the long months before, orchestrating the logistics and trying to please everyone. Her bustle, however, was a small price to pay to take the stress of a wife-less, marriageable son off her shoulders.
A wedding, called a toy, is arguably the most important event of an Azerbaijani woman’s life. And most marriages outside of Baku – and even many in Baku – are arranged. I grimace at how much women primp and perfume themselves on the daily, but I suspect a large part of it is because literally, a man may pick them on the street at any moment, turning to his friends or relatives and asking, “I want that one. She looks good. Does anyone know who she is?” Other times, it is the groom’s parents who send out the call. But traditionally, after some haggling between the potential bride and groom’s parents, and a couple supervised meetings between the man and woman, it’s all settled without so much as an awkward first date to the movies.
We began the festivities at the groom’s house – the house that he shares with his mother and father – dancing and speechifying beneath their grape arbor. When the formalities were finished and the relatives gathered, off we went to claim the bride in a loud, honking procession of cars bedecked with red and pink ribbons.
Thoroughly clogging up the dirt road up to the bride’s house, the men and women spilled out onto the street. The men waited outside the house nonchalantly; the women flooded inside. The bride was waiting, dolled up in make-up and a dress as stiff as her face. Her relatives presented her with a lamp and an elaborate hand mirror, as tradition dictated – symbols of light and beauty eternal. A knowing relative tied a thin red ribbon around her waist. And so – she became a gift, a present, a perfect package for when the groom arrived.
Back, back to the groom’s house. The fathers of the couples, loosened up by sips of acrid vodka, slapping each other’s backs and shaking hands. The bride breaking a plate with her heel for domestic prosperity and stepping over the threshold of her new house.
This could only be the first time the bride has moved, without her family, in her entire life. I could only imagine what thoughts were chasing themselves around and around in her head.
The men sacrificed a sheep on the stones of the driveway before the bevy of females escorted the bride inside. I stayed behind, away from the press of excitement and perfume, which I found stifling. I looked at the sheep’s blood instead. I’d never seen blood so bright red. It was so bright red, it seemed fake.
I’ve heard that if blood’s bright, it’s oxygenated, the blood coming out of an artery. Dark blood is deoxygenated, simply from veins. Who knew? The still pool reposed beneath the grape arbor as we piled back into the cars and drove off to the banquet. But its vivid red stayed with me, seared into my retinas.
Fresh on the heels of the wedding, I went out to a neighboring village with teachers from my school to pay my respects to a colleague, whose father had recently died. It seems that with the cold, come the funerals. It was raining when we went – the damp village was all green hills all hung with gray mist and village dogs lean and watchful, sitting by the road.
I am not sure which aspects of an Azerbaijani yas are purely Azerbaijani, and which are Muslim. History and culture has tangled them up. I do know that Azerbaijanis often ask me how long funerals take in America. Here, a funeral, or a yas, can be a multiple day event. The family of the deceased observes a three-day mourning period, then mourns again the seventh, then fortieth. One year later, on the anniversary of their death, another observation is held. It’s not unheard of for a yas to drive a family into dire financial straits. With so many events, and with hundreds of guests arriving and expecting tea and food, they may be as lavish as weddings.
Men and women sit separately. The men gather outside, beneath a tent, to drink their tea with lemons and dates. My place is with the women. We sit inside on the floor, our backs against the wall, with blanket sand cloths pulled over our legs and feet. Each service is presided over by a mullah of the same sex as its audience.
For this yas, our mullah’s voice was raw with age and use, resounding through the room as she read passages from the Qu’ran, eulogized, and led prayers. Mullahs may do this for many rounds of guests, all relatives and friends of the deceased.
The flies that day were plentiful. They were taking refuge from the rain and damp outside, making orbits around our hands as we drank tea, landing on the scarves and shawls of women that had covered their hair, those front legs pincering and grooming their red-eyed heads.
I have not seen the other traditions that accompany death in Azerbaijan – I have not seen the burial or the dressing of the dead. But as I sat there, surrounded by the muted wailing of the women, it made the grief fresh and close. The physical proximity of so many women, their voices bent together with one intent – of expressing unfettered sorrow – stirred my chest. I found that I couldn’t speak.
After we were served tea, we had a modest meal. A woman came round and sprayed each of us with rose water, and as I left in the rain, I smelt it still on my clothes. On the bus ride back, the chatter of my colleagues turned to things that seemed impossibly mundane after such profound showing of respect. How muddy the roads were, how beautiful the green hills were today but goodness they are so far away from the middle of town, and could we please, please stop the bus so that I can buy a fresh village turkey, turkey meat is so delicious.
I received a wedding invitation as I walked back to my house with a fellow teacher. Her daughter is getting married soon. And as autumn browns the edges of grape leaves, blood is rinsed off paving stones and the scent of rose water fades.
I have observed Fizuli’s (my host father’s) hand, quite dark and hairy-knuckled, poised in different stances: enfolded in the other, while held before him; enfolded in the other, while held behind him; the straightened index finger, skyward, belaboring a point. Sometimes, a pear-shaped glass is caught in its embrace, all amber and gold that gleams darkly between those fingers.
But this is a position I have never observed.
We are gathered round an armchair. A laptop rests on Aytaj’s (my host sister’s) legs; it plays a video, a clip of a national TV show. (Recently my entire host family – father, mother, brother, sister – had been selected to compete on a family quiz show, and are now the talk of Jalilabad.)
On the screen, they beat a timer, answer questions, and look solemn. In the room, they tensely declaim against their poor performance that earned them second place. The mistakes are rued, the pauses are laughed through, but, but – I feel the pride that brims: a secret glow, like tea behind thick, concealing fingers.
And then, the smallest movement: my host mother’s paler hand edges forward and rests upon Fizuli’s; the pair of hands just sit, comfortably on the armchair’s armrest.
Her hands are always full: they are extensions of her brain that bustles and bustles. I have watched her work in the garden with those hands, wrangling the long black rubber hose that feeds the blossoming riot of orange, of purple, of red. Her hands rinse lentils, slice meat, pluck hens, write figures, smooth children’s hair, in understanding silence.
She does not give airy speeches often. Her darting talk is just a reply to things: the phone rings, and from her throat a gush of laughter or gossip flowers; her children sleep, well into late morning, in the shaded living room, on their sheep’s wool mattresses, and she howls, “Wake up! WAKE UP!”
Always, there’s work to be done.
When Fizuli comes, in the evenings, there is no need for talk. When the weather is warm he stays late into the night at the male-only teahouses. He is the patriarch. He brings back home the newspaper, round loaves of bread, and kilos of fruit and meat and sweets. In his hairy-knuckled hands he gathers the house’s cash, and sorts it.
When he returns, it is accepted that my host mother, compact, petite, quick-moving, has prepared a meal, and has dealt with the minor offenses that the children have perpetrated. If the offense is more egregious, it falls to Fizuli’s jurisdiction, and the inevitable guilt will scare the child away from his rumbling up the steps from the door.
Together, they form something that projects the air of a business partnership. Fizuli has the final say, of course, over the effective little unit that my host mother oversees in his absence, producing food and tea for guests, patient upbringings for children, or a comfortable place to sleep. In the evenings sometimes I see them in a state of stately efficiency, sitting in conference over a table, the handwritten paperwork unfolded and fanning out like a sharp-cornered skin of frost across a lake. Bills, records, letters – anything the household requires, they tackle together intently.
Even their looks dovetail: they are a study of opposites – no averages between them, but only sharp contrasts. Fizuli’s square head is stern with lines and angles, topped by an indomitable unibrow that raises and lowers depending on the conversation. His two shoulders form a shelf when he stands to his full tall height. My host mother is small. Her curves converge tightly into one petite, female frame, and her cheekbones express playfulness.
This, perhaps, is the rural, conservative Azeri ideal, the future envisioned for the plentiful families born of arranged marriages: a sort of self-sufficient nucleus.
I find the arrangement constricting occasionally. I chafe against the ill-fitting edges of its expectations in many ways. As an American, I hit the road alone, unaccompanied by a male. I insist upon financial independence. I enjoy the privilege of having a room all to myself. At times, I question and challenge, and wonder – why don’t they push the envelope, as well? (Would a man die if he did the dishes, for once?)
But this is not my American family, and this is not my American world. Though I cannot admit to wanting it myself, I can, after observation, understand it a little better. This is their way of persisting, of having security when things I take for granted (some social safety net, efficient government, utilities, respectable future male suitors for daughters) are not given here.
If the sky were to fall, if war were to come, they’d have each other, shared resources, children to raise, and they’d persist.
But this: hand over hand, skin to skin, this touch that is scarcely discernible. This meeting, this touch over the flowered sofa arm. It is inspired by something else that, maybe, has never been spoken between them, like their business and their work and their understandings of each others’ places – but is none of those. Something different, that binds two people, and makes the going sweet and better.
Peace Corps work is limited to your imagination… and your local resources, which may or may not be ideal. As such, volunteers are always coming up with projects that, despite the multitude of difficulties and disappointments that are part and parcel of Peace Corps, are truly inspiring.
They might be drops in the bucket compared to big budget aid programs, but sometimes I am convinced that, for a smidgen of funding, you’d be hard pressed to find a more effective development alternative than a PCV who’s been living the life of the community around them.
I wanted to give two examples of recent accomplishments, because, as my days are winding down in the land of Az, their realization has an especially deep resonance. It seems like it’s taken two years to achieve these things – two years to gain trust, language skills, and local know-how.
First: we recently held our Write On! Competition awards ceremony in Baku. I am a committee member for the Peace Corps Azerbaijan branch of the project, which spans nine Peace Corps countries. Every year on an appointed date, students of all ages (and some non-students, too) write a creative English-language composition in response to a prompt. Submissions are judged not by grammatical correctness, but by creativity. And this year, like all years, the submissions are impressive. After all, it’s hard enough to write creatively in your native tongue, let alone a foreign language!
We had over 320 submissions for this year’s (Azerbaijani) competition, and only 33 winners out of the lot. With grant money, we purchased awards such as English learning books or young adult novels, printed custom-made booklets with the students’ essays, and certificates.
I was touched to see the winners and their parents gather in Baku at our invitation. As they received their prizes, I could see the pride that their parents exuded over their children’s unconventional academic achievement. In a place where education rarely emphasizes creative expression, this. Was. AWESOME!
Just to give you an example of the wonderful essays we received, this is an excerpt response of an 11-year-old student named Georgie Gadzhiyev to the prompt, “You wake up one morning and can understand chickens. They never shut up. What do you do?”
At twelve a’clock I go to park seet on bench, and think – “Why people dont understand me?” them come two little chik and ask me, Why you are cry? I say I understand you, but people dont belive me. “Stop cry!!! say little chiken you are a prince of chiken. You are must help for every chiken in the world. We go with you to chiken island and you are see king of the chiken’s. Whe are go to first international airport and with helikopter we are to chiken island’s, and I speak about my mission with chiken princes.e have a plan,” say king of the chiken’s. We hang a plakat for chrisler buildind in New-york, and in this plakat write, “Stop kill chiken’s!!!
Second: This past week, I made a long haul up to my friend Kaylee’s mountain village in Zaqatala. Kaylee led a week-long camp that included presentations on dental health and environmental stewardship to her kids, interspersed with games and crafts.
Think about how exhausting summer camp in America is, then double the difficulty – this wasn’t an English language camp, but all in Azeri. Keeping up with the kids’ energy was tough with the younger ages, and, though Kaylee was doing a valiant job at directing everything and everyone, I was wondering how much her lessons were being absorbed. Out of a school of hundreds of kids, maybe 20 might show up for your clubs, and then out of those two might be the ones that come calling at your door for extra help. Peace Corps service does not like to reward you with satisfyingly quantifiable numbers or clear-cut successes. It is maddeningly uncertain, and, if you are successful, wickedly ambiguous.
On the last day after camp, I took some of Kaylee’s boys up into the mountains for a hike. They brought apples, bags of salty snacks, and bottles of soda. As we settled on a relatively flattish spot to picnic, the little boys did something amazing.
In a land where people regularly toss finished bottles and trash bags out of bus windows – in a land where cows feast on garbage piles – they threw their trash away in a plastic bag to take down the mountain later for proper disposal. When one errant boy threw his glass bottle on the ground, another named Hikmet, about 12 years old, sprang up and scolded him. He had already affected the mannerisms of an older Azeri man, raising his arm and hand straight out like a flag toward the offender.
“Ay boy – what are you doing? Go down there! Pick it up!” he shouted, backed by an angry chorus of other boys.
I couldn’t believe it! Like an excited parent, I gushed to Kaylee later about the lessons she had imparted, honored by her students even when she wasn’t there.
These are some of the best, sweetest moments. Ironically, it’s the moments when you’re scarcely even looked at – when the students, friends, colleagues here do it because they want to, because they take pride in their work or community, and not because some annoying PCV is trailing at their heels, telling them this or that.
I’ve been exhilarated and disappointed, frustrated and relieved. But then again, that’s all of life, right? You have your small victories and your big, and each one of them counts.
I had forgotten: when an honored guest arrives at an Azerbaijani house, all becomes a theater.
I’ve long integrated into my host family’s lives. I’m a fixture in their home, albeit an odd one. Routines flow around me, an otherwise uneven stone in a steady stream of daily concerns, habits, and necessities. I pass in and out of the door, amble about in the yard, rustle up things in the kitchen to suit my relatively outlandish tastes, and I receive no more remarks. The hanging of laundry, the making of jams and pickles, the comings and goings of friends and children through the front gate drift around unseen me. And I like it that way.
But sometimes, a special guest arrives, and the mundane routines must jostle aside as the performance begins.
The other day, my host father towed back a Turkish man, a prize new acquaintance, and asked me to sit with them so the guest could practice his nascent English. And that was when the house altered course, following a sequence of long-rehearsed motions.
The plates cups forks spoons, salt dishes, bread basket – they sit in their positions, on the table in porcelain silence. The women – my host mother, my 14-year-old host sister, and a female relative come to visit, but relegated to the wings – hover in the kitchen. My host mother labors over salads and plov and chicken; my host sister brings them out in turn.
They pour out amber-dark tea into the household’s best china, unseen. They lay the tea-ware out on a metal tray, unheard. My host sister takes the tray into the guest room and presents a cup to each person; unspoken rules of hospitality apply to the order in which they are given. I attempt a familiar joke with her. She acknowledges it with a moment of a smirk, but no more. During these hours, she’s a stranger to me.
She disappears, and the conversation wheels. The men gesticulate, nod, furrow brows, appropriately bristle at stated grievances – bad roads, no gas, no work; on cue they unite in emotion and pride over words from the Qu’ran, interpret anecdotes with deafening platitudes, raise fingers and eyes and voices to the ceiling to exhibit convictions, speak with guarded optimism of futures and sons.
The words turn and fall and rise, and all the while a fury of activity overtakes the kitchen beneath the lethargic, hanging flies. The kettle keens, the dishes endure scrubbings and suds, the gas stove blazes. Only when the guest finally departs, my host mother may make a brief appearance. She laughs, waves away compliments to her cooking. Her husband brags about the house’s hospitality as the guest leaves into the evening.
I exhaled relief at the end, when I went back into my room and found a pile of disorganized laundry. I picked out my host sister’s socks and found her tidying up in the kitchen, where I gently slapped her with the mis-sorted garments and said, mock-annoyed, “I BELIEVE these are YOURS?”
She took them, and giggled. Like that, the scene splintered and broke away to reveal a house resuming its normal patterns.
Is it like this in America? Do we, too, have our own roles and lines when it comes to an important dinner party? Maybe the division between the wings and the stage is less palpable, more invisible. Maybe it exists in our mannerisms, or our dialogue, in a way that it does not exist in Azerbaijan. I don’t know.
I will remember, though, well into my second year, what an out-of-body experience it is: to sit in the heart of tradition – tradition not as a text confined in a travel guide or cultural artifact locked in a glass case – but as a living scene.
There is a quote about Venice that I can’t find at the moment, but it describes the entire city with crisp and poetic simplicity. It goes something like, “Sunlight striking a white wall; the sigh of water.” Ugh, I’m obviously butchering it. But anyway, my recent six days in Greece (yes, out of country… again… I’m seriously a Peace Corps Volunteer… I promise) were so glamorous and breathtaking that the entire experience, like that half-remembered quote, must be crushed down and distilled into stark words. Any other way, and I’d simply overflow.
So, Greece. Sun-bronzed bare arms; a vastness of blue sky over white walls; the scent of lavender that lingers.
I’m sad that my photos don’t do it justice.