Ash's Azer Adventure

Hello everyone! The following is my blog about my 27 month trip to Azerbaijan working with the Peace Corps. I am a part of the 4th group sent to Azerbaijan and am in the Community Economic Development (CED) Program working with local companies to help them operate better in the world. Hopefully I’ll have some fun stories and cool pictures from traveling around Asia Minor and Eastern Europe. This blog is in no way related to the Peace Corps or their opinions. I hope you all enjoy…

Sunday, January 28, 2007

I hate Mondays, even in Azerbaijan…

I arrived to work this morning to find a huge pile of new wood for our office, which is great because we ran out last week and it was cold in the mornings. What sucks about this is that we have to carry that wood up to our 4th story office without the use of a bag or anything practicle to carry it with. What also sucks is that my boss will carry a lot, but he goes slow and takes breaks, and my 24 year old co-worker is lazy, will only carry a little and goes slow. What that means is that I made as many runs as both of them combined and carried more wood than both of them combined. Since I don’t do any sort of real physical activity here, that wore me out big time…

I don’t have too much to report this week, so this should be a fairly short blog-lucky for you guys. I heard Ram’s mom found my blog, so a warm hello to Ram’s Mom!

I officially applied for my grant last week, so now it is just a waiting game.

I got chosen to be on the SPA (Small Projects Assistance) Committee for the PC-there is two Volunteers and a handful of PC Staff on this committee and we review grant requests from the Volunteers. There is a pool of money that PCV’s can apply for grants up to $5,000 from to do projects and the SPA Committee decides which projects get funded by that resource. It should be interesting to read about projects other PCV’s are trying to do, as well as hopefully it will help me become better and writing grant proposals.

Our beloved town has decided to start cutting down a ton of trees in the town and to tile the living crap out of it. No one seems to have a good explanation for this, although I’m pretty sure someone is making some good money off of it. My favorite answer when asking a local why this is going on is that “Lenkeran doesn’t get many tourists, so they are cutting down the tall trees so you can see the buildings better”. When I was told that answer, the person was pointing at a run down old apartment building that no one actually wants to look at for excitement. They are doing a really good job with the tiling and new flowers/plants/small trees they are putting in, but it just seems like they are going to flatten our town. It will be very interesting to see what it looks like in 19 months when we leave.

I just realized that my American food eating habits are really weird to me over here. From friends and family I have received care packages and have been getting a ton of candy, chips, and beef jerky (snack food)-which I am very thankful for everyone! What is weird to me is that when I was living in the US, I barely ever ate any of this stuff, except of course chips and queso or salsa. Just an odd thought…

Well, this past week I finally hit my wall for living with an Azeri host family. I have been living with a local family for 7 straight months and am ready to move out on my own. Nene is still good, but the constant being around her, being quiet, wearing clothes (which as anyone who hangs around me in my house knows I hate that BIG TIME), telling her when I’ll be home and where I’ll be going, etc. is driving me freaking NUTZ!!! My first host family and Nene have been as good as I could have possibly imagined, but man, I’m ready for my freedom/personal space back in a big way. We can officially move out on March 14th, so Tom and I have begun our hard search for new living quarters. We have been told we cannot live together, which does not make me happy because now we both have to purchase 2 of everything and find two houses to rent, etc. Renting houses is a weird concept here, there are no contracts, the renter usually wants to keep possessions in the house, they usually think they can stay in the house or come in any time they want “because it is their house” etc. Most Volunteers have to move 2-3 times average in their 18 months of house renting for one reason or the other, so it is not an easy experience, but I think it will be worth it in the long run…..hopefully…

This blog’s pictures were of our 4 star hotel, the new section of the big park that they have been working on since we got here with the new museum dedicated to their first president and then the park that was covered with trees that now is obviously not. It backs up to the nicer looking park in the pictures, so we think they are going to just keep on extending the tile/park all the way down the street…who knows when it will end.

P.S. the random picture is the 2 dead fish in the room across the hall from me that I almost stepped on when I went to get my bag the other night…that would have really grossed me out since. I’m pretty sure we just ate one of those suckers for dinner, but haven’t officially checked yet…lucky me!!!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


This week I thought I would give you guys an idea of what I typically eat (or am offered to eat) over here in the mighty AZ. Breakfasts are typically bread, butter, maybe cheese and possibly a couple of fresh eggs from our chickens (over hard typically-but sometimes a kind of scrambled version). With Nene, I get eggs about 2 or 3 times a week, and the other mornings are left-overs from the night before. There aren’t really “lunch meals” and “dinner meals”. Everything is very seasonal here as to what you eat. They have bread with every meal (and most people eat at least half a loaf with each meal) and typically a salad plate which has cucumbers, tomatoes (although not in the winter-now we get radishes instead), and some greens (like green onions or basil or something that they just eat raw). In the winter potatoes, cabbage, and soup are the staples. They also pickle a lot of stuff, so that is big in the winter as well-some of the pickles are really good and some are just waaaay over done on the saltiness. They do french fries or mashed potatoes, noodles/pasta, and then possibly some sort of meat. “Cutlet”, which is kinda like mini-hamburger patties (ground up cow meat, bread, onions, and possibly some mystery herbs) is really popular if you have average income. Rice is huge here. They cook everything with a TON of butter, so it all tastes good. They give you the crunchy rice that burned with the butter on the bottom of the pan-that’s the best part. They serve sweet raisins or date type things on their rice, which I love-the raisins are really good. Where I live “Lavangi” is the popular dish-it is basically a rotisserie chicken that has mini-stuffing inside of it-finely chopped nuts and herbs, then you eat it over rice-it’s freaking delicious. “Dolma” is another staple-they take green peppers, tomatoes, or eggplant, hollow them out, then I think they broil it with a kind of meat sauce in the center. It is greasy as heck and they spoon the grease on top of what they serve you, so it is really good. People use the bread to soak up all of the grease that is left in the skillet or plate at the end of the meal-no grease goes to waste! The soups are pretty non-descript-plain broth soup, bean soup, sometimes you’ll get random parts of a chicken in there, and they usually have some potatoes in there as well. One soup has big rice/meat balls in it that is pretty good. Since I live on the coast, fish is really big here-it is really expensive though. It is decent, but obviously still has the bones in it Non-boned fish is a huge plus of American fish dishes. Picking bones out of re-heated fish at 8 am that you ate the night before is not fun at all. They do kabobs here as well with goat or lamb meat, tomatoes, peppers, onions etc., but it is expensive, so that is rare to eat/is mostly for special occasions. They only have one fast food/street vendor type meal, which is a “donar”. It is basically a pita type sandwich with mayo, kinda ketchup sauce, tomato and cucumber slices, and meat shaved off a huge hunk. They are pretty good and cost about 50 cents typically, so they are good for on the go.

Azeris drink hot tea 24/7, so that is the stock drink of choice for every meal. They will put a sugar cube or piece of chocolate in their mouth while they drink it. Another option is putting a type of jam in their tea. I’m not a huge fan, but I get offered it all day every day, so I’ve gotten good at putting in a sugar cube and chugging my tea quickly to get it over. It is scalding hot when served, so you pour out half of your little glass into your saucer, it cools quickly so you drink that first and then move on to your tiny cup, OR you pour it back from the saucer to the cup and drink it all together. I drink out of the saucer myself-why give myself another chance to spill if I don’t have to being my logic. One fun snack I was just shown while drinking tea is a Snickers. But they buy a big Snickers bar and then cut it up into little pieces for everyone at the table to share. It’s pretty funny. We’ve been having fresh cow milk for breakfast recently, which is good after you add a little bit of sugar to it. They also have “Compote”, which is homemade Kool-aide-think tons of sugar, some water, and lots of ground up fruits in a refreshing drink.

The Azeris take a lot of pride in their national dishes, and most things I’ve eaten are really good. There just isn’t a lot of variety-another huge bonus of living in America. When I move out on my own in a couple of months, I’m going to be eating a ton of rice and pasta I think. I’m going to try to get Nene to teach me how to cook a few things over the next two months, so we will see how that goes.

In other news, last week I began working on my first grant application, so I’m kinda nervous about that. I’m trying to get a $500 grant from Disney for a youth project in my community-kids from two middle schools and the people from my office are going to clean up a home for disabled kids, pave a part of their land with asphalt for a mini basketball court, mow some of the grass by a river in behind their building for a soccer field and get them spots equipment from another organization. Right now they have a dirt/rock/trash area they have to play in, so I’m hoping I can get the local kids go help out the disabled kids and go over there for play days and stuff. I visited the disabled home and when I was leaving one little girl (probably 4-5 years old) said “bye, bye”, it was really cute. That was the only English any of the kids knew, and you could tell she had to work up the nerve to say it. I’ll find out in a month if I’m going to get the grant, so we will see….

I know a few people from Chicago read this, so congrats to all of the Bears Fans out there….we are going to try to find a place in Baku to go watch the Super Bowl if at all possible…

Last order of business: if you have 3 free minutes, will you do my friend Tye a favor and click on this link ( ) and take his super short survey for his PA school project. It’s really short and Tye would appreciate your help.

Monday, January 15, 2007

4 months in baby!!!

The following pictures are of T’blisi (that’s Ram in front of the castle), us on the mountain skiing (me, Charlie, Magda, Ben, Kasey, Jenny’s back and Rachel), Me, Rikki George, Ina, and Bethany’s forehead this past weekend, some “Greasy” Wash and Go shampoo we found, and me with my group of kids I played with last weekend-more on that below).

This week I wanted to cover courtship in Azerbiajan-once again, this is only my view as a single American guy that hasn't had a serious girlfriend in a while and has only been here for a few months. I have the perfect, true story lead in from last week in Lenkeran:

An Azeri kid was driving his car around town and saw an attractive girl walking down the street. The guy decided it was a good idea to follow this girl for a while and then she turned off the street into the huge main park in town. Well our masculine hero decided street or no street, he was going to continue his pursuit, so he drove right into the park. About 50 yards in he realized this was maybe a bad idea, turned around, and drove out. Well someone got his license plate number and they tracked him down in a town about 20 minutes away from Lenkeran a few days later. He had to go to jail for 15 days and every morning he had to go to that same park and sweep it with the old sweeping ladies so that the girl could see just how cool he was every morning. I freaking love that punishment…

So that’s basically a good intro on Azeri style courtship. Obviously it is kinda different than in America (although I’d imagine most guys I know have followed a hot chick before, just not me, that’s immature). There is no “dating” here. Typically a guy sees a girl he likes at school or a wedding or something, tells his parents he wants to marry her, they call the girls’ family, explain the situation, and then they set it up. The guy has to come ask the girl to marry him, and she can say no-I’m not sure how often that usually happens, but do know a girl that declined a few months ago (and no, it was not me asking her). Supposedly after the age of 25 for girls, they are considered past their prime, so they want to get married ASAP. They get married in a mosque-signing the official documents and exchanging rings, etc. but with no family or anybody else in attendance, but then live apart for about 6 months. During that time they have a “girl wedding” and a “guy wedding”. There are gifts given and dressing up before each wedding and the group of main cars going to the wedding put ribbons and stuff on their cars and haul ass all around town constantly honking their horns and swerving all over the place so that every single person in the entire town knows that there is a wedding (this happens every single day, sometimes multiple times a day-not my favorite thing ever). The girl wedding is close to an American wedding reception with guys, girls, music, food, dancing and drinking (for the men). The guy wedding is strictly for men and is basically the same thing but no chicks. Lots of toasts are given by each side of the family. After a certain group of men (or women) gives a toast, they then go out and dance in a group for a song. This rotation of toasts and dancing goes on form 6-12 pm, I love it. Very rarely do men and women mix on the dance floor (an exception being when Nene made me dance with her at the first wedding she took me to). One nice feature is that they usually have several video cameras going around during the wedding with live feeds to TVs all over the room, so you can constantly watch the wedding that you are at on TV while you are there. The favorite national past time here is to watch wedding videos. People here will literally watch the same video 4 times in a night, it’s unbelievable. When you show up at the “wedding”, you give a guy at the door money and he writes down how much you gave and your name. Each person is expected to give the same amount at every wedding they attend usually. This money goes to the father that is paying for the wedding to cover the cost of the wedding (if he gets shorted he’s out money and the other way around he makes money). You kind of pay for how much you think you will drink and eat, or if it is a good family friend you give more.

Having said all of that, my host parents during training have been sweethearts since the 5th grade, so this “typical courtship” is not always the case, just most of the time. Baku apparently is its own separate planet and dating and things of that sort go on there quite often. Out in the rest of the country, especially the villages, guys and girls typically aren’t allowed to interact, so dating is completely out of the question. Everyone here is really concerned about people gossiping about them, so they make sure not to be seen anywhere near a person of the opposite sex in public. A friend of mine had to set up an elaborate scheme so that her friend could walk on the beach with a boy she likes for 15 minutes one day. It was amazing the planning that went into a 15 walk in broad daylight. Turns out that she found out in that 15 minutes that she really didn’t like the guy…go figure….

In other news, last week gasoline, natural gas, and electricity prices all sky rocketed in AZ, permanently it seems. This means that everything in the country is going to go up in cost, so it will be interesting to see if the PC gives us any extra funds. Obviously none of the locals are happy about this what so ever considering they have a major oil and natural gas pipeline running through their country and the fact that they don’t have gas or electricity consistently in most of the country as it is anyways.

Last week we had the PC Security and Medical Officers pay us a site visit, so Tom, Tim and I got to meet the head of the hospital (I’m going to have to be in a really bad way to go near a hospital here so let’s think good thoughts about that) and the Chief of Police. They were both extremely nice guys and gave us their personal cell numbers incase we ever need anything what so ever.

A group of 10 of us when to a town called Imishli (kinda in central AZ) for a Right to Play (an organization out of Canada that promotes exercise and athletics to kids in underdeveloped countries) Day. We played games like tug of war, duck, duck, goose, red rover, etc. with about 100 kids in the 10-12 year old range on Sunday afternoon. It was a freaking blast man! I think we may have had more fun than the kids did. I kept getting picked on in duck, duck, goose, so I was tired after all was said and done. I didn’t see it, but I hear Jenny got nailed in the head with a ball. I’m hopeful that I can work more with this organization while I’m here because P.E./gym class isn’t really common over here and kids don’t get much exercise unless they are a boy that plays soccer after school. There isn’t much organized sports for kids unless you are in Baku it seems.

My boss came back to work today; I hadn’t seen him in a month. He told me that “2006 is over and that means school is over. This is 2007 and I am going to be very busy.” I’m excited to see what that means exactly. Tomorrow Tom and I am going to meet with the Director of Education in Lenkeran to try to set up a conversation club to help kids practice speaking English. Then I’m going to a local school to try to set up a project for their kids to do some sort of community service if I can get this Disney Grant for them. I think Rikki George, Kasey and Rachel may come visit this coming weekend, we are all kind of Baku’d out right now. Tom’s aunt and uncle sent queso fixins, so I’m counting the minutes until Saturday afternoon when we cook that up…

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Hello 2007!!!

Well, I just got back from my first official PC vacation to Georgia. We get 2 days of vacation that accrue each month while in the PC-so a total of 48 days in 2 years. You can’t take any vacation your first 3 months or your last 3 months. December 14th was my 3 month anniversary of official service (training doesn’t count), so I had 12 days of vacation already burning a hole in my pocket. About 10 of us (Ben, Carlo, Ram, Magda, Kasey, Rachel, Charlie, Terah, Jenny, Bethany) decided to go to T’blisi, Georgia for NYE and to go skiing. Some of the people also went to Gori to see Stalin’s old house and museum. Sadly I couldn’t make it, but I heard it was incredible.

Rachel and I took a night train out from Baku-my first train ride in AZ. It wasn’t that bad, but it was insanely hot in the cabins. Even though it was in the 30’s outside I was sweating in shorts and a t-shirt. We heard the train stops for 2-3 hours at the border to check passports and all of that jazz, so we got out at a town close to the border, took a mini-bus to the border, walked across, and then got another mini-bus to T’blisi. Well after going through 5 Azeri side check points, we get to the Georgia side and it was closed at 10:30 am. They said it would be two hours before it opened and I was not happy. Thankfully they decided to open it up after only 30-45 minutes (there were at least 40-50 people waiting in the 40 degree weather outside to cross). The entire trip door to door for me was probably about 20 hours to go a few hundred miles-transportation at its finest!!!

I stayed in T'blisi for three nights and had a blast. T'blisi is a really beautiful city with rivers that flow through it and it is set in a ton of hills and has the feel of an old European city. One thing we didn’t count on in our planning of the trip was that the entire country basically shuts down for 2-3 days for the New Year Holiday. Thankfully we had a place to stay reserved beforeI stayed in T’blisi for three nights and had a blast. T’blisi is a really beautiful city with rivers heading out there. We stayed in a “guest house” with a little Georgian lady that had a house set up into her area with bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living room, then 2 other parts of the “house” that had bathrooms and 3-4 bedrooms each filled with twin beds. It worked out really well because it was only $15/night, she cooked us breakfast 2 mornings, she loved us, and we could all stay at the same place. The PC Volunteers in Georgia stay there when they come into T’blisi for a weekend to play. They had a VCR and tons of movies, so that was also nice. We were blessed with “Mr. T’s Be Somebody” motivational tape and my life has been changed forever-seriously, he’s amazing. Sadly all of the good Georgian restaurants were closed, so the only Georgian food I got was from street venders-still pretty good stuff.

NYE started off with McDonald’s for dinner due to the lack of open restaurants and then Carlo and Kasey went to work on my hair. My goal is to have one main haircut while I’m here and NYE 2007 was the perfect time. The pictures will show the progression of my hair (we actually cut a “Samurai” style in Baku before we got on the train) to the final Mohawk for the night on the town. It was FREAKING AWESOME! They used a combination of egg whites, a little hair gel, and some hair spray to get it rock solid and ready to play. We went out to an Irish Pub for NYE from 9-11:30ish, then went down to the main city square for the countdown. They had music, dancers, a hot air balloon, tons of lights, thousands of people that all seemed to be shooting some sort of fire work. Mostly M-60 type deals and 3 foot Roman Candles. It was pure chaos! They never got the hot air balloon off the ground and I’m pretty sure they realized that people may blast their Roman Candles at it and burn it down if it tries to take off-I think they made the right call. We tried to get into a few other bars after mid-night, but they were all charging huge cover charges and stuff, so we went back to the Irish Pub and danced with the band until 5ish. Then everyone decided to call it a night, but Ben and I decided that we weren’t ready to go home, so we walked across the street to another place that had music. Well Ben is about 6’4” 230ish and I had a huge Mohawk and we walk into this little bar that has music going, but everyone was calmly sitting at their tables enjoying a quiet night. Needless to say everyone just stared at the two freaks that just walked in. We sat at the only available table which was next to the dance area and DJ. It was way too calm for us after a fun night of dancing and fireworks. Well after about 10 minutes a girl gets up and starts dancing solo. I decided I was bored so I got up to dance with her. No more than 23 seconds later, the entire bar is on the dance floor going crazy. It was hilarious!!! We stayed there till about 7ish and then decided it was time to head home to crash. It was by far one of my most fun NYE experiences ever!

The next day we walked all over the city because the ski mountain was closed (we also didn’t plan on that). I’ll have pictures of the city in a week or two-we used other peoples’ cameras and they didn’t bring their computer chords to share their pictures. There are amazing old churches, a castle, the old town, buildings and statues everywhere. We had a low key night to prepare for a full day of skiing the next day….or so we thought….

We got up early, but being a big group, it took us forever to get out of the house. We got a mini-bus to the mountain, got there around 11ish, by the time we got all of our second hand equipment rented and on the mountain it was noon. There wasn’t much snow, but there were lots of rocks and dirt. The mountain is small with only three lifts that go up in a straight line to the top and there aren’t runs, you just go down the mountain in any direction you want. It was beautiful, just not the best skiing ever. We are really spoiled in America. We had to catch a bus home at 3, so I got in about 5 runs (one of the lifts kept breaking and they were slow as mud when they were running). Have sounded negative about everything, I was skiing in Georgia on January 2, 2007, so it was FANTASTIC!!! It was my first international skiing experience so I loved it!

The next day we toured the town some more. We hit the big bazaar that wasn’t so big since everyone was still on vacation. Thankfully one very important place was open-The Donut Stop!!!! They actually had real donuts. I had a huge glass of milk, a twist and a maple bar. I would have eaten there for hours if I didn’t think I would have gotten sick. In hindsight, eating myself sick may have been worth it.

Rachel, Magda and I took the night train all the way from T’blisi to Baku that night. We left at 6pm, went 1 mile, and stopped for 2 hours, went an hour to the border and stopped for another 1.5 hours before we finally got going. We had a Georgian guy in our cabin that we couldn’t communicate with at all. So the three of us chatted on the bottom bunks while he sat with us bored I’m sure. We got bored about 2 hours into it and decided to open a bottle of our Georgian wine. The guy started waiving his finger no at us so I got worried. Well he proceeded to pull out a bottle of homemade white wine and four cups for us to share. We drank that and then he pulled out a bottle of homemade red wine and pictures of him making these wines so we drank that. Then he pulled out apples, bread, and meat cutlets. Next thing we know there are 3 Georgians, 2 Azeris and a Russian guy (with homemade vodka that was really bad) in our cabin all laughing an joking around until 2am. The train ride went from potentially horrible to a completely random fun time. We got to Baku in the morning, showered off in a friend’s hotel room and then headed home. It was a really fun, but quick trip.

Other business:

We Are The Champions My Friend!!! That’s right, from 12,000 miles away Tom and I won our Fantasy Football League! Words can’t explain how happy I am. I added up the points from the last weekend 5 times before I finally accepted the fact that we won. Good stuff galore!!!

Well everything I have read says the OU/Boise State game was one of the best games ever, so that’s cool. I think OU would have needed to win in order for that to be true, but I may be a little biased. I can’t wait to get my copy of the game sent to me so I can at least watch all of the insanity (and apparent out coaching of OU) that took place.

This week was a holiday week in AZ, so no work for most people. I will start back Monday and am trying to get motivated for the New Year. 2007 will be my only full year in AZ, so this is the beginning of the long middle stretch of my service. I’ve been gone a lot for the past couple of weeks with Georgia and training, so I need to get my butt in gear and back in it. I’ve felt myself kinda hit the 1st six month/winter rut all of the previous volunteers said they hit, so I’m really going to focus on getting out of that ASAP and getting projects and my job going. A group of about 10 of us are going to a village next weekend to play with disabled kids for an afternoon so that should be a lot of fun.

I hope everyone in the US of A had a great Holiday and I wish you all the best in 2007!!!