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…

Saturday, April 28, 2007

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…

That has been going through my head for the past week constantly. Let me explain:

My playground isn’t finished yet, but I think I can finish it tomorrow

Getting all of the needed permission for America Day has not officially been given it seems, but I think I can get it done tomorrow

I haven’t completely kicked my land lady out of my house, but I think I can kiss her goodbye tomorrow

I can be excited about turning 30…no wait, I’m positive that’s not going to happen

So my boss helped me out a ton last week and got my playground all taken care of except for the asphalt-this was a HUGE surprise to me and I was extremely grateful. So I showed up and talked to the new director at the orphanage and she said “I don’t like it. It is too small and our kids can’t play on asphalt.” I have no clue what my faced looked like in response to that, but it couldn’t have been a happy face. I explained that I only had money for that size and that we all agreed on asphalt. She held her ground and said she wanted grass instead. So I went back to talk with my boss about the logistics of expanding the area and switching to grass. He made some calls and we could go from 7meters by 12 meters to 12 by 20 with the amount of money that had been donated. So all day Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday I have been at the orphanage with workers tearing apart what they already did, making it bigger, putting in two huge trucks of dirt, etc. It has been fun working outside during the day and getting messy. I don’t do much physical labor/exercise here (that will change once it gets nice out), so I’m freaking sore all over. The sod will come tomorrow (we paid some guys to literally just dig up 12x20 grass from a random field for us and deliver it. I love this place). We had rain off and on all last week, so that kept things going slow. It is looking really good (although the kids have to play basketball on grass now). Every time a new person comes and looks at the play area they either make a comment on how it is the wrong size, it should be asphalt not grass, or something else. Everyone here has an opinion on everything even if they have no clue what is going on-it drives me insane!!!! But, in the end, this will look good, be big, and will be done this week-all major things in my mind. I made the director promise to me that they would take care of the new field and told her if I come back next year and it is over grown or messed up we are going to have some big problems. I think she understood my seriousness on this matter, so I’m hopeful she will follow through with her promise.

T minus 6 days until America Day Lenkeran is upon us! I thought I had all of the permission we needed from the long list of big wigs in Lenkeran. I called one of them the other day and he told me he never got a permission letter (he told me he didn’t need one 3 weeks ago). So I had to write a request letter to the Mayor asking him to send a permission letter to the head of education so he would call the schools to give them permission to let the kids come hang out with us for a couple of hours on a Saturday after class is finished. AAAAHHHHH!!!!! Simple things are just made way too complicated here and it is a frustration that most of the local people seem to feel constantly. It really makes it hard to do good/productive things in AZ. I am extremely hopefully I can get all of this permission business taken care of tomorrow so Tom and I can focus on planning everything out for America Day on Saturday. I would like to say a quick thank you to Tom’s parents as well as Ron and Becky for the two insane packages they sent us with queso ingredients, tortilla chips, Cinco de Mayo party decorations, etc. You guys are all AWESOME! Our friends will freak out once they get down here and see all of the post America Day munchies we are going to have!

Over the past week I have asked my land lady every single day if she is leaving at the end of the month and she has said yes each time. After I get done writing this blog I’m going to go giver he May’s rent money and make sure she is leaving tomorrow. I can’t tell you how ready I am for her to freaking be gone!

Tom, Tim and I had dinner with the Embassy’s publicity manager as well as a government worker from D.C. last night in Lenkeran. It is always fun to have American visitors, especially when they buy us a good dinner! We hung out with them for about 4 hours at the hotel and had a great time. They gave us a bunch of pictures and books about America for us to hand out at America Day, so that was really cool of them.

I am currently reading a book a former PCV wrote about her service living in Africa about 8 years ago. It is really interesting to read how much different her situation/service is than mine. The differences about living in an African village vs. a city in AZ, being a health worker dealing with AIDS and malnutrition vs. working with Community Economic Development, the things she ate, her daily routine, etc. It makes me wonder how I would have handled/how my life right now would be different in another PC assignment like the middle of no where Africa.

Well that’s all I’ve got this week. I’m sure I’ll have a ton of pictures and stories next week about the completion of the playground, America Day, my landlady leaving, etc.

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…

This week’s pictures in order are of: the orphanage, the playground size/set up we tore apart, us tearing it apart, the guys putting in the combo basketball/soccer goal, the new bigger size, one of the dirt dump trucks, and last but not least, the color of the water that comes out of my faucets before I distill it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Rain, rain, go away….

As you can guess, the rainy season is still in full swing. I’m actually fine with rainy weather and am glad we are getting all of it so that everything will be green soon. I may however blame the rain as the reason for any potential bad attitudes relating to my last month of my “Rocking 20’s” as I’ve heard it called. Where the rain is hurting me most (besides all of my pants needing to be hand washed constantly) is in my completion of my playground. As of Friday morning, the only thing I had accomplished was getting the combination soccer/basketball goals welded and the wood cut for the backboards. I hadn’t been able to get anything done with the ground where we are putting the asphalt. I have been gone for 5 days (nice timing hu?), so I’m hopeful when I go to work tomorrow my boss will give me some good news about some weekend progress! Today it is super windy and rainy, but hopefully it won’t last all week. My house doesn’t sound so solid when the wind blows hard, so that adds some excitement to my life.

I took off to Barda last Friday to help a PCV with a local trash pick up for kids and her town. We had a handful of PCVs come in to help Sarah’s project and about 25-30 kids help out. We all had rubber gloves and trash bags and picked up litter for about 1.5 hours. Some Azeri people stopped us and asked what we were doing and then why Americans were doing it. We told them it was good for the environment and that no one else was doing it in AZ, so thought we should do it. Most of them got the point and were happy about it. The kids were all in good spirits and had a good time with a good lesson learned. I really enjoy getting to visit new towns and helping out other Volunteers with their projects-even something as simple as a trash pick up. It gives us time to hang out together, but more importantly allows us to have a positive impact in AZ in other areas besides only working on things in our towns. We crashed at Sarah’s amazing house-she wins the award for coolest set up I’ve seen-she has a huge open outside area fully equipped with gymnastic rings and a FREAKING POOL! I’m not even joking on this. She has a 5 foot high, 8 foot wide and 30 foot long cement water container. I now know where I’ll be spending my free weekends this summer!

After our clean up we headed to Ganja to help celebrate Ben and Maria’s birthdays! We had a really good group of friends there and had a great time. It is fun going to Ganja because it feels like city living, but not as big as Baku. We ate well, played games, and had a pretty good birthday celebration for them. Charlie got Ben the lower half of a goat’s leg for $1 as his b’day present-life over here is swell…

I took off for Baku on Sunday because on Monday I had my first ever Small Projects Assistance (SPA) Committee meeting. I had to review two grant applications written by other PCVs (I didn’t get to vote on the one for the boy’s camp I wrote), and then our committee of 5 discussed and voted on each project. It was a really good experience and I’m glad to be on that particular committee, both short term and long term. Being in Baku solo isn’t too much fun though. I dined on nachos and chicken sandwiches solo both days which is delicious, but not too entertaining. I basically used my time there to get a bunch of little PC things taken care of and to recharge my batteries for the coming two weeks.

The next 11 days will be by far the busiest days of my time here to date. This week I have to try to do everything within my power to finish my playground for the orphanage-come on good weather-including buying supplies, managing the install of everything, setting up the opening day play time, etc., plan and hold my conversation club, get permission for all of the kids we are inviting to America Day, start to really organize it, and have dinner with a couple of people visiting Lenkeran from the Embassy. I’m really hoping it will be a good week and I won’t have too many bumps in the road, although I’m expecting at least a few solid dips.

Today’s pictures are courtesy of Magda and are from the weekend Tom’s parents came to town-only a few weeks late on getting them from Mags. We have: Tom, Me, Joy and

Kasey in a cab; Magda, Tom, Me, Kasey and Rachel Azeri style picture; Rikki George, Me, Kasey, and Magda; Me, Tom and Magda; and finally the entire gang. Incase you were curious, yes, I was in fact sporting a super sweet moustache that weekend…

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Man Down!!!

Well, we made it basically seven months (we missed it by 1 day) before we had our first PCV leave our group on their own accord. One of my dear friends Kasey decided that the Land of Plenty was calling her and the Land of Azeri wasn’t a good a good life choice for her right now. She had been flip flopping for a while and I thought I had her convinced to stay on several occasions, but in the end America won out. Kasey, being the wonderful person she is, in her first email from America told us all that she was going to go for a run (something girls here aren’t that free to do), eat a delicious salad (not here) and take a bath in a whirlpool jet bath tub (maybe 1 notch up from my bucket)….as you can imagine my email response back to her was that of well wishes and not of her choking on a crouton.

Kasey didn’t have a great school assignment and her kids were miserable to her and it just wore her down over 7 months. I really think it is a lot harder over here for the English teachers generally speaking. A lot of the CED (business) Volunteers have decent offices and work with a good staff where as the TEFL (teachers) are placed in old schools and are at the mercy of elementary school kids that speak a foreign language. To me personally, I just think that could potentially be a much harder situation over the long haul-although they get the entire summer off-sadly not much to do here anyways in the summer though.

Well spring weather has hit Lenkeran which means RAIN! It has rained at least half of every day the past week and will supposedly continue for the entire month. They don’t say we are sub tropic for nothing. I’ll trade one month of rain for all of the delicious fruits and veggies we get down here. What is great about all of this rain is when you try to wash you clothes. Yesterday I did my first hand washing since my training days in Jeyranbatan-it was just as fun as I remembered it. At least the temperatures weren’t in the 100’s, so not a lot of sweating. One thing that was great was that the water from my well that day was about as brown as I’ve seen it, so I was cleaning my clothes with brown water-I can picture my mom cringing now. Well I hung them all up to dry and then it rained for the rest of the day. This means 2 things: 1-maybe they will be a little more clean with pure rain water and 2-I won’t get to wear this huge load of clothes for many days (if at any time during April). This weather pattern could really put a restriction on my clothing options for April (not that I really had any to start with).

I caught a pretty exciting stomach bug at 4am Thursday morning. I will spare you all the details, but just know that stomach problems and outside squatter toilets when it is dark and cold is not the way you want to spend much of your life. For about five hours each of the last three days my stomach literally sounded like you were pouring out two liters of Coke and holding the bottle straight up and down-it was insane! I feel much better today thankfully. I was going to go visit a friend yesterday, but decided risking that stomach on a 4 hour bus ride with no rest stops available was a bad life choice. We made a big spaghetti sauce and garlic bread last night for my first official meal back and it was delicious.

My playground project is officially under way. I ordered two combination soccer/basketball goals on Friday. I am going to order all of the other supplies on Monday, but I will be at the mercy of the weather as to when it all gets done. This means I will be spending the majority of my time at the orphanage the next couple of weeks supervising and hanging out with the kids, so I’m really excited about that. Hopefully I can catch a break at the end of this week/early next week with the weather because I would like to have it all done before the last weekend in April.

Let’s see, what else? Oh yea, I had my first conversation club last week. There were three female volunteers here before we arrived and they were all English teachers. When we got here some of their former students asked us if we would continue their English conversation clubs (just sitting around with kids and helping them practice speaking). I kinda put it off at first since everything was still new, I had not idea what my job would be like, my Azeri sucked, etc. Well I decided around December that I would start one up and tried to get it ready to go for the start of the spring semester. Well it took a month and half to get permission from the Ministry of Education in Baku and the local branch to finally connect with the PC to say it was ok for me to do this. Then it I was really busy for a couple of weeks, then we had the long holiday, then the kids couldn’t agree on a day and time that I could do (they wanted the weekends, but that’s the time I’m gone from site when I leave so bad idea). FINALLY we met on Thursday and had a blast. Ten kids approximately 15 years old (boys and girls) showed up and we chatted for an hour. Tom came as well and will be helping me out with it. We just spent the first session introducing each other and letting them ask us questions-we have no clue what we are doing. I had a BLAST! The kids were great and I think we can have a lot of fun with them. They already asked if we can do this all summer and next school year too, so it looks like this will be a constant meeting every week for the rest of my service, which is good for me. Working with kids who are eager to learn is a lot better than with adults who just say they want to learn but don’t mean it.

In other news, Tom finally got a house and it is freaking awesome. It is about 3 times as big as mine, it has a full on queen sized canopy bed with matching armoire, two night stands and a divinity thing in the main room and a second bedroom. He has gas, a garage, a shower with electric/gas combo water heater and a tiled dinosaur mural on the wall of his outside washing area. It’s retarded in the best way possible. He lives on the other side about town, about 20 minutes away from me in the ritzy part of town. It’s a sweet set up, but I still really like my little house, so I’m not too jealous. I did hear a rumor that one Volunteer has a freaking pool in her house and is paying $30 less than me a month…WHAT IS THAT ALL ABOUT???? That’s great, but not exactly the PC experience ya know…

Good bye Kasey-We All Already Miss You-I Hope You Don’t Choke on a Delicious Taco Bell Taco or T-Bone Steak!!!

Pictures seen this week are of: my two favorite Kasey “The Quitter” Pruett pics, Lenkeran Fire Station, a new Memorial Park in Lenkeran for Azeris lost in battle (written in both Azeri and English oddly enough), the view from the penthouse sweet (nice room) at the hotel Tom’s parents stayed in, and the outside and inside of an old prison in town that Stalin was believed to have been held captive in at one point. They are currently updating the prison, so we had to break in to check it out.

Monday, April 09, 2007


That’s right, Tom and I finally got to go see a football (soccer) game in Lenkeran on Tuesday night in the new stadium-the grass cost $1,000,000 according to locals. The place seats about 14,000 people and has a jumbotron. Not bad for a town that doesn’t have gas or consistent electricity to most of the houses right? Lenkeron’s team was playing Sumgyit (the major town next to my old village Jeryanbatan), so it was a battle of my two AZ homes. It was a fairly entertaining game even though Lenkeran is #2 and Sumgyit is at the bottom of the league. Tom and I went with his little host brother and people from his office. We yelled, screamed and cheered on the local team and at the end of the game the score was Lenkeran 3 and Sumgyit 1!!!

We had a really nice week in Lenkeran last week. During the days it was sunny, not much wind and almost hit 70 degrees a few times. That means that Tom and I threw the baseball in front of my house an hour at lunch and an hour after work each day. This has become a new favorite tradition of ours when it is nice out because tons of people walk on my street, so this gives us a chance to be seen out in the community by a lot of people and also an immediate conversation starter. Little kids will just come over and watch us throw for the entire hour. Some of them will be brave and accept our invitations to toss the ball a few times, but most just want to watch. We also get a lot of older men that want to talk about it, so it is a great way to spend some time when it is nice outside.

My busy streak is turning into a busy life it seems. Last week I had to write a full grant proposal for an ABLE leadership camp for Azeri boys about 15 volunteers are hoping to hold this summer. They held the first camp last year, so we are hoping to get funding/support do re-create it and invite about 50 kids to attend. Writing a grant proposal for the PC is quite an undertaking, so I was busy with it quite a bit over the weekend.

On top of that Tom and I have officially scheduled an “America Day” for Lenkeran on May 5th. We are going to get about 80 kids to spend the afternoon with a group of Volunteers. We will talk to them about Memorial Day and 4th of July for 30 minutes and then talk to them about how Americans usually take summer vacations and travel to see other parts of our country. This is not common in AZ-most people have never left their home town/village (except to go to Baku), so we are going to encourage the kids to try to visit one new place this summer. We are going to show a slide show of American hot spots as well as places in AZ that we have traveled. After that, we are going to attempt to teach/play baseball for a couple of hours. This should be a really cool way to spend a day and get to hang out with a bunch of local youths. That doesn’t sound like much of a production, but to give you all an idea about how things work here, I’ll give you a sample of what I had to do today to get this activity cleared. Keep in mind that this is for kids, after school, during their free time, for about 4 hours on a weekend day just hanging out with some PC Volunteers. Today I talked with my boss about America Day and asked him to help me find a field to play baseball in. He called the Executive Power Youth, Sport and Tourism Department for Lenkeran, I had to go meet with them, they told me to plan the cultural sessions and they would find me a field and that they would be joining us that day because it is their jurisdiction, then they called the Mayor (the head of Lenkeran) to get permission for this event, once he says yes they will call my boss, I will have to set up a meeting with the Head of Educational Services in Lenkeran, go talk with him and get this permission, he will call the principals of each school we are inviting kids from to give them permission, that permission will be passed down to the teachers, who will then sign the kids up. I already have talked to several groups of kids and teachers that all want to be a part of this, but I have to go through this long chain of command so that kids can hang out with us Saturday afternoon on their free time. This is just a microcosm of how things run in each city/town/village in AZ. I’m not saying it is a bad system. It just makes doing even the smallest, most innocent things around here very difficult to do.

That leads me to my orphanage project. I want to say a special thank you to all of my friends and family that expressed a desire to help out my project. It really means a lot to me and I’m looking forward to getting this playground built for the orphans. Hopefully I can get that done by the end of April, just before America Day and the ABLE Summer Camp. I officially got my tickets to fly to Cairo and meet my family on June 8th, so I’ll be ready for a little cool (only 130-140 degrees) vacation after all 3 of these projects get finished.

What else….oh yea, the lady I am renting my house from still has not moved out and it is driving me INSANE!!! She is really nice, but she’s just a needy old lady that talks a ton and at a million miles an hour. She has been waiting for workers to come fix my squatter issue and an electric problem-then she says she will leave me in peace. There used to be a small store attached to the side of my house that she wants to turn into a small office at some point. They are tearing down buildings across the street from my house to make the park even bigger, so there are tons of bricks over there. Tom and I were deep into a Saturday afternoon Monopoly marathon when I hear her yelling at me for help. I go out my front door to see this…

That’s right, a dump truck of bricks, wood and junk. Now I have this massive pile in my yard and am waiting for workers to come move all of it so one day she can use it to make an office. I’m not saying she isn’t smart, I’m just saying she’s still here and keeps making my house worse. My patience is definitely getting tried right now with that. Oh yea, on top of that, yesterday she is in the yard yelling in hysterics. I go outside and she has a shovel and is wailing away at the yard, screaming and crying. I run over and ask her what it is, she just keeps freaking out and holds her hands making a ball the size of a bowling ball-I HAVE NO CLUE WHAT THAT COULD BE-especially since the grass is about 3 inches tall. I yell at her to get out of the way, ask if it is a snake, she says no, so I grab the shovel and look around. What horrible thing could cause a woman to freak out this bad you may ask…A FREAKING TOAD! No joke, a fat toad was in the grass. She told me to kill it, I yelled no and for her to go inside and then escorted my little visitor out the gate into the ditch along the street. Good times had by all. I may get Nene to come over here and use some of her muscle to get the lady out of my new place…

Pictures are of: the football stadium, the jumbotron, an action shot of the game, Tom and his little host brother Ulvi up in the seats, the dump truck, Tom giving the truck the “Azeri Hand Jive”, and the truck’s dump.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Kniolas Survived The AZ!

Before I begin, please note that I have not sat still for the past 2.5 weeks, so sadly I did not put up a blog last week. Sorry kids. To make up for it I am posting 2 new ones right now, so read this one and scroll down to the next new one about the Novruz Holiday.

So Mike and Terry Kniola came to visit Tom last weekend. Several of us came into town Friday for a training on youth exercise programs and then we met up with the Kniolas around 5ish (they got in at 6:30am and had been bumming around Baku all day). We met up with them at the hotel (where they graciously got us a room) and then headed out to dinner with the usual suspects. We took them to eat nachos, chicken nuggets and cold beers. Somehow they stayed out with us until midnightish, and then they split up when we headed to the dance clubs. Keep in mind we are a fairly intense group to be around since we never get to see each other and basically save up all of our energy until we meet up in Baku and then we just explode (figuratively speaking). The next day Tom and I took the Kniolas on a Baku tour of all of the hot spots and then we all had a good nap time. Saturday night we all went out to a good Georgian restaurant for dinner and then we let the Kniolas go crash (jet lag caught up) and we went out on the town. The next day we headed back to Lenkeran after Tom and I showed them the McDonald’s burger/chicken sub sandwich combo for lunch.

The Kniolas stayed in the Gala Hotel (4 stars!) and had an awesome room! It didn’t feel like you were in AZ at all. They gave Tom some presents (Patron, 15 boxes of Mac&Cheese, and waffle ball stuff), so it felt like Christmas all over again. We immediately made Mac&Cheese for dinner and then all crashed. Monday was a holiday still, so we took them for an all day tour around Lenkeran. They seemed to enjoy it and said it was pretty much what they expected. We hit the bazaar, Caspian Sea saucer to make it cool faster as well as how to put a sugar cube in your mouth while you drink the scalding hot tea. That night we all went to eat at Tom’s house with his host family. I think Tom’s dad was a little caught off guard when Tom’s dad gave him the traditional hand shake and cheek kiss. Tom’s mom ate with us which was cool since that never typically happens. They made us a spread of all the typical Azeri food (especially rice and chicken lavangi-the Lenkeran specialty) and we got stuffed! After that we headed back to their hotel room and play, football stadium, river, parks, etc. Tom and I took his dad to a Tea House to see what it is like to be a man in AZ and to let /evening we went to the big event, NENE’S 70TH BIRTHDAY! We were going to get to slaughter a sheep and cook out for it, but due to the bad weather we went to a really nice restaurant with the entire family. Nene’s son from Moscow came in to surprise her and her kids and grand kids from Baku all came down as well. There were about 20 or so of us for a massive meal, some dancing, more eating, more dancing, cake, dancing, etc. Nene stood up at the beginning of the deal and gave a toast, and then told us we all had to chant “Nene, Nene, Nene” when she was him drink some more traditional tea in its most common setting. We taught him how to pour hot some tea into youred Yahtzee for a few hours until we were all ready to crash. The next day we did some more touring (it was a cold rainy day sadly and we didn’t get to take them up into the mountains). They hit Tom’s office and bought some souvenirs during the day. That afternoondone and clap. She then had every single person there give her a toast-she literally called out peoples’ names when she was ready for them to praise her. Tom’s parents both got called out by Nene for the toasting and were completely caught off guard I think. It was pretty funny and they were really good sports about the whole thing. Tom's mom didn't seem too excited about it, so I made sure to include a picture of her toasting on this blog so it will be immortalized-sorry Mrs. Kniola! It was good for them to see how a big Azeri family/party goes and to see how people interact (husbands, wives, kids, etc.). They then had to leave early to go to another dinner with Tom’s co-workers. They had to head back to Baku to catch an early flight out on Wednesday, so we basically jammed as much Lenkeran/Azeri culture down their throats as we could in two days. I’m sure it was an overload, but I hope they enjoyed their trip. It was fun to have them here and we were all very thankful for their generosity they showed us all weekend. Yaxsi Yol Kniolas!!!

I had a 3 day training in Baku on project design and management. It was a really good workshop and I’m glad I went. I took a local Azeri friend from Lenkeran to the workshop and hopefully he and I can work together on some projects in the future. I got home yesterday and am dead tired. I feel like I’ve been going non-stop for the past 2 weeks or so. This week Tom and I are going to start planning our America Day in Lenkeran for May. I’m also going to start traveling around my region all of April trying to get ideas for projects to get going.

On a down note, I got my grant from Disney, but then I found out 2 weeks ago that due to the insane inflation going on in AZ right now, the prices for everything have doubled. That means I have to find another $500 somewhere. I posted a “Partnership Grant Request” on the Peace Corps website. You can put a description of a project up on there and then individuals or companies can make donations to specific projects. Hopefully someone will see it and fund it so I can get the project going. I’m glad I started off with a small scale project first, so I can see all of the problems that I will be encountering over here doing things. There are no contracts and their sense of professionalism/business sense is completely different that in America, so I really have to manage my expectations and plan for potential future problems in all of my projects.

The pictures are of: us at the Georgian restaurant, family pic at Tom’s house, the men at Tom’s house, us in the big park reading a paper from Woodstock, IL (they wanted this picture becaus

e in Woodstock it is tradition for locals to take a newspaper with them on trips and take pictures reading it in weird places, then they put that picture in the newspaper), us at Nene’s house pre-party, Nene addressing the crowd, oldest daughter toasting Nene, Tom’s mom toasting her, the delicious food we ate (a skillet with French fries, meat, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, tortillas, and tons of grease with hot coals under it to keep it hot), Nene dancing, a group picture, us all eating, the grandkids and one more big group picture.

My First Novruz Holiday Experience….

So in Muslim countries they have the Novruz Holiday in March. It marks the beginning of the New Year. The entire country takes the entire week off-so basically spring break AZ style. They start growing little plates or dishes of tall green grass (some sort of sprouts) a few weeks before the holiday week. There is a build up of activities a few weeks before the main week, but I didn’t see anyone really observing it. The green grass is decorative and everyone has some in their houses and offices. The women do a lot of spring cleaning and an insane amount of baking. They make all sorts of pastries, candies, and baklava. Tuesday is the big day where the family has a massive feast (think Thanksgiving). In the Muslim religion the number 7 is big, so they have 7 major dishes on the table. I was invited to several places for the big feast, but could only go to two of them. I went to my tutor Farana’s house and then to my boss’ house. Coordinating my holiday was a mess because my boss told me to come to his house but none of them speak English. Farana’s family invited me to their house also. I asked if I could go to both houses for a couple of hours, but they would never say yes or no. After several explanations and many sets of phone calls everything was straightened out and everyone was happy. I went to Farana’s house and had dinner with her brother and parents. Her dad was funny. It was the first time I had met him and he was really nervous about having me there and he wanted everything to be perfect. They put 7 little piles of hay in the yard, light them on fire, and then you run/jump through them. It symbolizes you leaving all of the bad things of the past year behind you and you having a fresh start to the new year. The flames were HUGE and we still ran through them. We sat down to a massive meal of rice, chicken, fish, pastries, and several other Azeri dishes that I can’t really explain. We each lit a candle and made a wish and whoever’s candle burns the fastest has their wish come true-I lost. They died eggs and we had an egg cracking competition. You hold your egg in your hand and someone hits the top of it with the top of their egg-I lost again to Farana and her father. After a wonderful meal, Farana and I headed over to my boss’ house. They have a tradition of throwing hats at doors and you get candy or money so we threw our hats at a couple of doors on the way. At my boss’ house we sat down to a ton of pastries, fruits, nuts and tea. My boss brought out an old photo album and then he talked about Russia and Azerbaijan for 2 straight hours. It was really interesting to hear his views, but I felt bad for Farana. My boss loves to talk a ton and you could tell she wasn’t enjoying the conversation too much, so I felt bad for dragging her along with me.

The next day Tom and I met Nene at 7:30am to head to the river. This is strictly a Lenkeran tradition. The entire town goes to the river early in the morning on that Wednesday carrying these small identical red clay water pitchers. You wash your hands and your face in the river and fill up your pitcher. When you get home you sprinkle some of the water on your door, in your yard and in each room of your house for a “cleansing”. I filled up a plastic water bottle for my new house. What was great about it was looking at the dirty brown water we were using to “cleanse” everything. After a nice nap and some laziness, Tom and I went back to Nene’s and had dinner with her, her grand daughter Fazile and two of her friends. Fazile lives in Baku, is 19, speaks really good English, and is really fun. She’s a city girl and doesn’t like it too much out in the regions. It is funny to see Nene with young girls and the hierarchy. She gets to boss them around and they have to do all of the dishes and small house work. Nene was really tired, so she crashed and Tom and I hung out talking with the girls about music, movies and America for a long time. It is extremely evident that they have grown up in the big city because their views are much more modern, so that made it really fun to talk with them.

I thought about going to visit some friends in the country during the week since we didn’t have any work, but I’m so glad I stayed in Lenkeran. I had such a good time Novruz week. Everyone was extremely nice that week, saying hi and smiling constantly. Plus I ate so much good food, it was great! I’ll make sure I’m in town that week next year for sure….

The pictures seen were of: Novruz grass at Nene’s house, the fire piles we jumped over at Farana’s house, me with Farana and her mother and then with her brother, Tom and Nene heading to the river, Nene filling her pitcher, Me, Tom and Nene’s candles, some of the pastries, and finally of all of the people heading to the river at 8 am.