When one door closes

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As a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader, I would move to a different town, Sumgayit, in November, 2012.  This city is the third largest in Azerbaijan and is located about 35 minutes (by car) from Baku.  My last few months in Yevlakh went by quickly.  I tried by best to savor every moment since my new home would be four and a half hours away.

This year, we had five Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program applicants from Yevlakh city, and four of them were my students either in class and/or conversation clubs.  I was able to attend the first and second round of exams with them in September.

FLEX applicants from Yevlakh

I’ve been to a total of 15+ weddings in two years.  The last one was for a colleague’s  daughter.  I danced, ate, took pictures, and simply enjoyed.

Last wedding in Yevlakh

Although I’ve never written about it in detail on my blog, William, Eric, and I established the first softball team in Yevlakh last year.  A softball league was started by a PCV six or seven years ago, and now there are over 15 teams in the country.  I’ve seen the Yevlakh participants grow together as athletes and as a team.  Here is more about the Yevlakh Yahoos in an article from RMU’s Blog.

Yevlakh Yahoos at a tournament in Ismayilli

I was chosen as one of three TEFL Peace Corps Volunteer Trainers for the new group of Trainees that arrived in Azerbaijan in late September.  Two weeks in October were spent leading technical sessions alongside my program managers.

AZ10 TEFL Trainees

The FIFA Under 17 Women’s World Cup was held in Azerbaijan in 2012!  I attended the final game: France vs. North Korea.

Before the game

Go Azerbaijan! (even though they weren’t playing)

Before leaving Yevlakh, I explored as much as I could.  I went to: the history museum, the Heydar Aliyev museum, the mosque, all the parks, and many other places of interest in town.  In October, my students and I made a film about Yevlakh in order to share with friends and family all over the world.

Some of my students wrote a letter to the local TV station, EL TV, and suggested that they feature me on a show.  I didn’t know about this until I was invited by someone who works there.  Five of my students joined me, and we talked about Peace Corps, projects, and volunteerism.  They also featured one of the videos we made earlier in the year.

Yes, I took pictures of the TV.

It took me about a month to say goodbye to my students, friends, family, and coworkers.  I moved out of my apartment and stayed with my host family for the last week.  It was difficult for me to leave the home I’d known for the last two years, but I knew it was time for me to go.  When one door closes, another opens…

Living on my own

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Summer came to a close. I returned to Yevlakh after three weeks away, and I immediately found something strange in my apartment.  I had left sticky mouse traps in the kitchen and main room, and both were full of large, black bugs I had never seen before.

Welcome home!

I examined the rest of the apartment, but I didn’t find anything else.  I was thankful and thought that I missed the bug invasion while I was away.  I was very wrong.

I was Skyping with my Mom when the sun went down.  All of a sudden, I heard a noise and saw one of those bugs near my closed balcony door.  I wasn’t sure how to capture or kill the bug, so I grabbed my GMAT book and smashed it.  I continued talking.  Another one appeared, and another, and another…  I probably killed 15-20 of them just that night.

I quickly realized that these bugs were some kind of monster crickets that jumped, flew, made a lot of noise, and came out at night.  A whole community of them somehow found their way into my apartment, and they weren’t planning on leaving anytime soon no matter how many of their relatives I killed.

I believed there were two prominent causes of my dilemma: a newly installed street lamp right outside my balcony and flaws in my apartment due to substandard construction and deterioration over time.  I ended up spending the next week sealing all my windows and doors with paper and tape.  Each day, I waited until sundown, killed as many crickets as I could, and then retreated to spend the night at my counterpart’s house.  After three or four nights, I tried to sleep in my own bed.  I was woken up throughout the night to crickets jumping around my room and this scarring noise:

My friends, Eric and Evangeline, caught the tail end of this incident when they visited me for the weekend.  I’m glad that I have pictures and witnesses to remind me that I was not imagining the monster crickets.  I ended up destroying all the crickets (I think) with my GMAT book and Azerbaijani-English dictionary.

Crickets

Crickets are not my friend

Buildings in Azerbaijan can easily fool you.  A structure may look beaten and decrepit on the outside but beautiful on the inside (or vice-versa).  It is very popular to put a facade on the front of an old building to make it look new even though the inside is falling apart.  On the other hand, some buildings look like they could collapse at any minute, but the people living inside have remodeled their apartments and everything is pristine.

Here was my home of about ten months…

Notice the lego-looking facade on the front. My balcony was on the left side, third floor, right above the trees.

Back of the apartment building

From the other side

The rabbit hole

Front door

Entryway (main room straight ahead)

Hallway to the kitchen (bathroom on left)

Water tank above hallway: I had to pump my water, and it was stored there. I was lucky to have water coming out of the faucets, thanks to gravity.

Kitchen: The silver container on the right is my water filter.

Kitchen: The red appliance is the oven.

My washing machine

Bathroom: I made the shower curtain out of a plastic tablecloth. The quick-dry towel on the door is a PCV must-have.

Bathroom: I used a bucket to flush the toilet.

Main room: This is where I slept and ate. The electric space heater was my only source of warmth. I wrapped the cabinet like a present so no one could see inside. The door ahead is the balcony.

Main room: I had the blue bookshelf on the right made for me, and it now lives at my host family's house. My favorite part of my apartment was the "painting."

Spare room = my closet

Spare room

That concludes the tour of my Yevlakh apartment.  What would a Peace Corps home be without a few hiccups and lots of character?  I think there’s no such thing.

A lot to celebrate

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Sometimes I find it difficult to write in this blog because each day of my Peace Corps service is filled with moments, feelings, relationships, and growth that I can never truly express on paper.

For this reason, I haven’t posted in months.  I thought about writing and updating countless times, but it never felt right.  I think it’s finally time to give a summary of what has happened over the last six months or so.  Looking back on pictures and journal entries, I have identified the highlights:

After going through a competitive examination and interview process, one of my best students, Farida, was chosen as a Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program participant.  Only about 30 Azerbaijani students were selected, and each individual was to be placed somewhere in the USA to spend a year as a high school student living with a host family.  We learned about Farida’s acceptance last March, and then we spent the next few months completing paperwork and waiting for her placement.

When I was in Istanbul with my parents, I received an e-mail from a woman (Cindy) living in the Pittsburgh area.  Cindy said that she found my blog, and it caught her attention since I am also from Pittsburgh.  She was interested in learning more about Azerbaijan, an unfamiliar country with a fascinating culture and history.  Through our e-mail communication, Cindy went on to explain that her daughter was adopted, and her family had already hosted two exchange students.  Subsequently, Cindy said that her family was considering hosting again this year.  Here is a quote from what Cindy said in her next e-mail:

“Here is what is interesting Julie, and I just realized this last night – I think you may know the student we are thinking of hosting – her name is Farida.  Not sure but when I was putting 2 and 2 together, I was thinking wow – this is probably so meant to be – how neat that there is that link to Pittsburgh.  I have been asking our coordinator with the exchange company for info as to anyone that may of hosted from Azerbaijan, and she does not know anyone, and then that’s when I started reading blogs of members of the Peace Corps, and I Googled trying to find someone from Pgh in Azerbaijan with the Peace Corps so that maybe I can ask or understand the culture a bit.  It’s really something though.”

At the time when I read this e-mail, I was sitting alone in my apartment in Yevlakh, tearing up, jaw dropped.  I couldn’t believe it…  Could this be my Farida?

In the upcoming weeks, I didn’t mention anything to Farida because I wanted it to be a surprise.  Cindy was approved by her school district for an exchange student, and Farida got a call from her placement agency.  My phone rang, and when I answered, Farida said, “Guess where I’m going for FLEX?  PENNSYLVANIA!”  I acted surprised and told her that we should meet soon to discuss the news in person.  A few days later, I explained the whole story and tried to convey just how unlikely and amazing this placement was.

4th of July with Farida and Saleh

A portion of summer was a little rocky because my beloved site-mate, Eric, returned to the USA for personal reasons.  I knew that my last months in Azerbaijan wouldn’t be the same without him.  However, I filled the summer season with projects in my community, collaborations with other Peace Corps Volunteers, and trips to Georgia, Romania, Hungary, and Croatia.

Eric's last night in Azerbaijan

My trip to Tblisi, Georgia was a blast!  I traveled with my PCV friends Katie and Gio, and we were joined by Gio’s friend Joe.  We started by taking a marshrutka (van) to the “Red Bridge” border and then walked through passport control.  This was my first time crossing a border on foot!  We visited many churches including the largest in Georgia, Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tblisi.  We also relaxed in the sulfur baths, rode the funicular, and took in a wonderful view of the city.  We ate Georgian food and drank wine until we couldn’t anymore!

Enjoying beautiful Tblisi

Elvis has been hiding out in Georgia this whole time!

I celebrated the 4th of July twice – once in Barda and once in Khachmaz.  Here’s an article about Khachmaz 4th of July from the “AZLander,” a quarterly publication of PC Azerbaijan.

4th of July party in Khachmaz

Some PCVs went to “Atlant,” a resort with pools and slides, for the day.  This resort is located in Nabran, right on the Caspian sea.

Taking a break in Nabran

A PCV living in Zagatala established the first student film festival in Azerbaijan.  You can read a short description of the event in this edition of the Peace Corps Times.  There were three categories: short narrative, music video, and documentary.  After watching many different versions of “Call Me Maybe” videos, we decided to make one of our own.

The "Call Yevlakh Maybe" team

One of my most satisfying and hilarious stories about integration happened around the filming of this video.

William was coming to visit me.  He hadn’t been to my apartment for a long time.  I heard a knock at the door.  I asked “kimdir?” (who is it?)  No one answered.  I opened the door, but no one was there.  I figured it must have been my neighbor’s door.  About five minutes later, I got a call from William.  He said that he had forgotten where my apartment was and that he knocked on a door that wasn’t mine.  I told him that I heard a knock at the door, but no one was there.  I waited for him with the door open, and when he arrived, he started cracking up.  I was wearing a “khanim” dress (woman’s housedress) and house shoes.  William said that when I said kimdir, he wondered if he had accidentally knocked on an Azerbaijani’s apartment door, so he walked halfway up to the next floor.  When I opened the door, all he could see were house shoes and the bottom of a khanim dress, so he thought I was definitely an Azerbaijani woman.

This is what I call adaptation

My friend Michael and I planned an Eastern European adventure to use up the rest of our vacation days.  We traveled to Tblisi for a day and flew from there to Bucharest, Romania.  We met a new friend, Juan, at the hostel where we stayed.  We visited the Romanian Parliament Building, the heaviest building in the world, and the Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum that held authentic farm houses from all over Romania, depicting traditional Romanian life.  We stayed up late on our second night in Bucharest watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics.  Go team USA!

With our new friend Juan in front of the Romanian Parliament Building

After a few nights in Bucharest, we took a train to the city of Brasov, part of the Transylvania region.  From there, we caught a bus to Bran Castle, also known as Dracula’s Castle!  Our next leg of the trip was a flight from Bucharest to Budapest, Hungary.  We visited Castle Hill, took a boat tour on the Danube River, and shopped at Great Market Hall.

Budapest, Hungary

After a train ride to Zagreb, the journey was packed with the Museum of Broken Relationships, Stone Gate, St. Catherine’s Church, St. Mark’s Church, Zagreb Cathedral, Mirogoj Cemetary, and more.  We were even swarmed by a large group of Croatian teenagers who thought that Michael looked like Tupac!

Zagreb, Croatia

From Zagreb, we traveled to Plitvice Lakes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and then on to Split, the largest city on the Adriatic coast.

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

On our 15-day adventure, Michael and I talked about everything under the sun and listened to a lot of music.  We decided that this should be our Peace Corps theme song:

Back in Azerbaijan, one of my students, Shole, won first place in the 8th grade category of the “Write On” competition.  The Director of Programming and Training at Peace Corps submitted the story to headquarters, and it was published here.

Write On award ceremony

At the end of August, I met with Farida to say goodbye.  She was almost packed and ready for the USA.  Throughout our dinner and conversation, I could feel the happiness building up inside of me.  I was so proud of her, and I knew that she would make the most of the next year.

Our last meeting at McDonald's in Baku

During pre-service training, I spent every day with the same six PCVs.  We learned the Azerbaijani language together, went through technical training together, celebrated holidays together, and felt culture shock together.  Though we were all assigned to different regions of the country, we made it a point to have cluster reunions.  Our last one was held in Guba, the home of Joey and Hillary.  We also took a day trip to Khinalig, one of the oldest settlements in the country.

Picnic lunch in Khinalig

Cluster + Hillary and Jane

We even got to Skype with our language teacher, Oruj, who is now living in the USA!

After the reunion, we headed straight to Baku for our “Close of Service” or “Celebration of Service” (COS) Conference.  This would be our last conference as a group, AZ8s (the 8th group of PCVs in Azerbaijan).

Our last group picture

In the weeks following the COS conference, I received news that I had been selected as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader (PCVL).  The PCVL role is new to Azerbaijan this year, and it is only available in select Peace Corps countries.  The PCVL position is flexible, but some of the responsibilities include: serving as a liaison for Peace Corps Volunteers with staff, assisting with site development and host family selection and training, supporting new volunteers with community and host family integration, contributing to cross-cultural and volunteer support training for staff, leading Volunteer training events, and continuing to work with local counterparts and organizations at least 25% of the time.

The decision to even apply for this position was a difficult one, mostly due to my best friend of more than ten years, Sarah, who will be getting married in June.  I knew that if I were to accept the position, it would extend my service for another six months, thereby missing bridal showers and other important milestones leading up to the big day.  I spoke with Sarah before making any final decisions.  She was very supportive and said that I shouldn’t pass up an opportunity that will get me closer to my dreams and goals.

Needless to say, I extended my service for six months as a PCVL.  My original date of departure, November 8th, passed, and I am still here in Azerbaijan.

The story continues…

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Disclaimer

The contents of this blog are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.