Sheki was beautiful, old and at the foot of very green mountains, a rarity here. The countryside was a bittersweet reminder of  the Smoky Mountains, memories of summers spent there with the kids a backround hum in my mind. 

I went with the old Fart’s club, three of us older volunteers. We had planned to stay in this restored ancient Caravanserai, a stopping place for the camel caravans on the old silk road. (There is a silk factory in the town, but we didn’t get to go, next time.) Our Azeri friends had assured us we would not need to call ahead, the place was never full. It was full.

But the friendly desk help sent us back down the cobblestreet hill to an old-Soviet style hotel that we got for about $17. each. Clean and made memorable by the howling of dogs echoing through the main square of the city all night and the pre-dawn call to prayer from the Mosque nearby, with the imam, coughing and hacking his way through.

We had to leave by 10 for some mysterious reason, but our host, short, chain-smoking, wearing a worn to shiny green suit, was happy to keep our luggage for us and he did NOT have a yard-sale with our stuff, on the hotel steps, as I had predicted. We four wandered around looking for the bazar and instead found this little restaurant next to a park with an ivy covered fairy-tale cottage and a little babushka granny who offered to cook us a meal. I had done translating duties at both hotels, and I must say covered myself in glory, this time it was Mary’s turn.

She did fabulously and after a little wait, we had an omelet!!! or more like an egg stew with tomatoes, green peppers, eggs and onions, served to us as we sat outside in a garden of fruit trees in a field damp and clean from the rain the night before. Fresh bread, home-made cheese, and butter, and hot tea. Four very happy people.

After we stuffed ourselves (Azeri-style, which means small portions of everything, but mountains of bread,) we set off, this time equipped with a map, down the stone streets, made of rounded river rocks mortared together, and admire the red tile roofs, stained and algaed with age. They are made to look like shingles or cedar shakes and are all shades of clay and soft terracotta ranging to gold. The roofs are very peaked to keep the snow off, and that is about all you can see of the houses hiding behind the prettiest walls I have seen so far. Mostly made of field stones, but often in intricate layered designs using some brick, some block and different shapes and colors of stones.

In a small craft market, we met a wizened old man who makes the traditional Caucasus mountain sheep skin hats in a tiny shop as big as a walk-in closet. Some look like a big shaggy beehive, others are more like the cake-pan on the head type, others a fur boy-scout shape. Beautiful curly persian lamb, and also fleecy pelt hats. Further on, I was admiring a beautiful vine growing on a porch, that had these wisteria-like purple flowers and the tiny, besuited proprietor motioned us into the dim interior. It was a seed store, something out of long ago, in America, we would only see the like in an living museum such as Williamsburg.

 I asked him if he had the seed for the plant, and he pulls out a bag of seed pods from an old cabinet and fills an antique envelop with these pods. When I asked how much, no, no, no, I must have the seeds, no charge, he grew them himself.

Come spring, I will share the seeds out and each of us will grow a vine when we have our own places here.

Onward up the steep road back toward the Caravanserai, where we had eaten outside in a grassy courtyard the night before. Sitting on leather divans, under a pavilion, I would like to say feasting, but the Japanese business group who had booked all the rooms, also had eaten all the food, so it wasn’t the finest, but it was beautiful and the company was great.

As we wound up the narrow sidewalk, with the shops just two feet from the street, we poked our heads into the 15×15 foot shops and met a instrument maker and his friend, who played us traditional folk tunes and sang to us.

Later that day, we went about six miles out of Sheki to stay in a tiny, even more tightly walled village called Kish, at a guesthouse there. Ran into a group of Norwegians who were being guided by a man who works for the Norwegian Humanitarian Mission.  It turned out one of my group had already met this man, because their organizations are connected..

This is not a country where foreign tourists abound, so this was pretty strange. Anyway, nice dinner chatting with the Norwegians, while our hostess in typical Azeri style managed to cook an incredible meal for us four, the five Norwegians, a family of 8 Azeris tourists from the capital and 6 family members on a moments notice.

The walled yard was an orchard of apple trees and pears, and there were the most extraordinary pears, so huge and perfect they really did look fake. I took one back with me and I am going to sketch it before I eat it. (I did sketch it and I think it looks pretty good. I can say that cause you can’t see it 🙂 The apple trees were covered to collapse with apples, limbs propped up with forked sticks. At the foot of the garden by the stone wall was a cow byre, the family has three cows, they showed us the churn that they make butter in.

 We left on Sunday morning and took off with our hostesses’ husband, a taxi-driver, who treated us to an absolutely horrifying ride down the narrow, slippery-wet, stone roads at top speed. He dropped us back in Sheki at a gorgeous restored building from the last Khanate of Azerbaijan and we toured these intricately painted rooms done in beautiful Kashmiri looking designs of flowers, vines, paisley and birds. I used to sell these paper mache boxes with designs like these back in my old store.

Then it was back to reality. We took a little old Lada taxi back to Yevlax, a blasted heath of a town, which serves as a bus crossroads. Our driver, I could not BELIEVE it, was safety minded, he is the first person I have been in a car with, other than Peace Corps personel, who put on a seat belt. Back via Marshrutka to Ganja, not too scary, mostly because I chose a seat where I couldn’t see forward into the traffic.

Ordinary life starts again, that is if I can stay out of the iron-clad hands of the polis.








Nope, you are in a police state, Dorothy and they are out to get you and your little dog, too.


Today, Thursday Sept.1) we had our own locally produced version of the Vizier of Oz, starring me as Dorothy (minus the braids and ruby slippers) Neal as the tin man, Larry as the scarecrow, and Emil (Mr. Peace Corps safety and security) as the cowardly Lion. Actually, Emil should be Glinda the Good, because he rescued us, but I can’t quite picture him in a spangly tulle skirt and gossamer crown, since he looks like a friendly fireplug.

Business as usual, I get a call on Wednesday afternoon around 4:20. can I be at the police station in 20 minutes? Well, actually no, I am busy being sick, would tomorrow work? Sure, says Emil, I will let you know later. I get a text message that same evening, how about 9:15 a.m. tomorrow, you need to register with the Police. ( This is the third world, papers are a must here and I don’t mean the New York Times)

Okay, fine, we all meet at the main police station in Ganja, me Larry and Neal who are the other new Peace Corps Volunteers in the city. (Lucky Nancy, she was in the capital for the day.)  We are allowed in past the gun-toting guard at the door to the grand, stone edifice, and are ushered in to the office of the deputy chief of police. We all politely shake hands and sit down in this strange office with rooms-to-go, velour-seat, faux-Queen Ann dining room chairs lined up against the walls. We volunteers sit next to each other in a row, in the chairs, flanking the deputy chief, who is behind his desk. In front of his desk, placed so it forms the base of a T, is a long formica table with six chairs. Emil stands at the end of this table.

The questions cascade out, why are we here? what are we doing? we give our information through Emil, all is stiff and formal. It is not the happy-face welcome we have been getting all down the line here in Azerbaijan. But okay, baffled and a little off-center, we finish, we get up, we leave. On the way out of the imposing main police station, we pass a drill-call formation of police officers, waiting for the chief of police. (I had passed this group practicing the call to attention in a parking lot on the way to the station.)

A few hours later, I get a call from Emil, the chief of police has seen us and in Emil’s words “wondered who those guys were” so we are called back to meet the chief. We all think this is to be some nice hi, how are you, great to have you, thingy.

At six o clock, we reassemble at the police station (I’m late, surprise, surprise) but no matter, because what happens is we are ushered to this waiting room, sofa, this time, and sit outside for more than a half hour staring at this door. The door protrudes from the wall about a foot and a half, and gives the appearance of a large wardrobe. It is as if the police chief is crammed into this wardrobe and hanging there like a suit of clothes.

No such luck. We don’t get to see the great man, no, we are ushered downstairs again, back to our row of seats, right where we started this morning, and the deputy chief begins to harangue our brave Emil in Azeri.

Let me tell you, fear will do marvelous things for your learning skills. I bet if someone held a gun to my head while I was taking language lessons, I would be fluent right now.

Because while that guy was talking, I was concentrating so hard I actually understood what he was saying, the gist of which was this: they didn’t know we were here, what are we doing here, why aren’t we teachers like the other volunteers, we shouldn’t be here without permission, and there was going to be some problems. Why were we working with these non-governmental agencies and why were we working without getting paid?

The police seem to think we are here to make trouble, they are very touchy with the parlaimentary elections coming up this fall. It was pretty rocky. Emil was on his cell phone, working the situation with Peace Corps officials, and we managed to walk out, but it didn’t feel good. We then trooped over to the deputy-mayors office, who was far, far friendlier, and again explain who we were and what we were doing in Ganja.

Emil was pretty upset, he felt we were being bullied and was set to get some things straightened out involving our country director, the ambassador, you name it.

Just to be clear, there isn’t any real danger involved, what I was afraid of was having to leave Ganja and all the confusion of being bundled off again, like a package.

I think what struck us so forcefully about the incident was that it hit home that we are living in a place very different and very far from home. And how very clueless we are about all the undercurrents of politics and government here. But what also strikes me is how nice it is to be under the wing of my own government and to know that we do have that safety and security and our Mr. Emil is here to guide us through these tricky moments.

Now it just happens to be that the boss of my organization is a well-connected here in town, and his son-in-law is running for Parlaiment under the government party, so I was in the clear at least with the deputy mayor.

I’ve only been here a few weeks, and already have nearly been involved in an international incident. Just wait, I haven’t even warmed up yet.

On the nicer side of the street, met with the local guy from Save the Children, Anar, and I am now in charge of my own art therapy program for pre-schoolers in two regional centers. Big help needed on this one. This is going to take some doing, but I’m sure I can pull it off. I plan to begin the pilot program at the end of this month. There is so much help needed here and because all these programs are in their infancy, it is so easy to offer to help and have it accepted.

Next chapter: We all get out of town, for a well-deserved get-away in the old mountain town of Sheki, very beautiful and calm.

Aug. 27, 2005 Ganja, First Month at Site

Chalk it up to culture, language mishaps whatever, but the miscommunication genie struck again

Monday, I am going to ask my tutor, just what is up with this. Here we go, today, Saturday, Aug. 27, I had made plans to get together with some other volunteers in my town for dinner at 7 p.m. and last night my host family had said they were going to a wedding in the afternoon, would I like to come. Sure, I said, but explained again a couple of times that I was supposed to meet my friends in a restaurant at 7 p.m. Ran this by my English-speaking host brother, reran it by the family. I heard them explain it in Azeri to the host brother. Looked like all was on track.

The wedding (or whatever it was) was already going when we got there at 2. Food was on the tables, about a 100 people were eating and drinking and the band was playing. It was the usual, dinghy gold-satin chaircovers and table skirts, bottles of coke, fanta, vodka, champagne, juice and wine lined up on each big square table for 10, paper napkins festively stuck in the juice glasses with the fork, big spoon for the rice. Men at their tables, women at theirs.

Four and a half hours later we are still sitting there. I couldn’t quite believe it, but at 6:40 my host brother and father got up and drove off. Ack, I am thinking, trapped again. My host sister looked at my face, and she called him on his cell phone, and he comes back about 15 minutes later and asks me if I need him for something. I said, no, actually, I just was supposed to meet my friends at 7 and I would take a taxi home.

. Pretty much everyone else had gone home, I don’t have the foggiest idea what was going on. By the time I got back to the house, changed and got back downtown via Marshrutka, it was 8, but it didn’t matter, cause I was stuffed from the wedding anyway.

Which by the way, I never did see anyone who looked like a bride or groom. I am going to check the word in the dictionary right this minute (toy) and make sure it only means wedding. Because there were two young boys who were sitting under the wedding band-shell thing and seemed to be the guests of honor and I am willing to bet anything they were not getting married. (Later I found out it was what is called a “balaja toy” which is really a circumcision party. the one boy – seven or so, was the one who was going to be circumcised – ouch, poor kid, and the older boy was his brother or cousin who was lending moral support. It’s a big deal) Another question for my wonderful sweet tutor, Saida, ever-patient, who functions as my guide to this culture as well as my language coach.

So I did get into town and meet with my friends and that was great, cool breeze sitting outside at the Turkish Restaurant. For you history buffs, I am thinking of my brother here, they just love Ataturk here, there are several walls with bas reliefs along Ataturk Prospect the street my office is on. And Azeri is actually Turkish. So there are always Turkish restaurants and the country has a deep and lasting love of Turkey and the Turkish people. And just so you know, turkeys, the thanksgiving kind, are called hindushkas. We only eat hindus here, not turks.

On my way home, (9:30, after dark) I got on a pretty delapidated marshrutka, though none of them are exactly spiffy and it just kind of conks out at the central square, which is on a one-way street with cars whizzing by, of course going just as fast as they can, and the four young guys in the van with me get out and push the van backward and into the traffic and across the four lane road, with the van lights off (and there are no street lights in town) and they push start the van going the wrong way on a one-way street. The driver then makes a u-turn and I’m on my way home. Wow!

As they say on TV, the perfect ending to the perfect day.

I did get up and dance at the not-wedding, totally by accident.

It is a strange thing, but people get up and give these interminable speeches and then their factions, or family members or something get up and dance the following song. It is sort of like a popularity contest. So my host father got up and gave the longest speech of all at the whole not-wedding, and while he was making the never-ending speech, he had his arm around this tiny little babushka lady and tiny little matching man, (and my host father comes up to my chin) I think they might have been his parents. In the meantime, I was in clueless mode and was thinking it was a good time to look for the bathroom and I got up and went toward the door, but then I thought oh, I should at least stand up there and clap with the music, and my host family was beaming with happiness that I got up to dance, so then I had to do the dance, which was okay, I didn’t look any worse than any one else.

I can’t describe the dance. I just tried to, but I backspaced the whole thing. What I can say is it kind of looks like a hula with high heels on or like someone waving in an airplane on a runway without those flag things. It’s all on video anyway. Thank God you won’t be able to see it. (I never did find the bathroom, and that just added something extra to the occasion.)

Right here, I just have to say something about the shoes. The guy shoes. If a guy is a real flashy dresser he has shoes with reallllly, reallly long toes. I mean so long that they actually kind of turn up on the ends, because when the person walks, their walking motion presses the front of the shoe forward and since there is no foot in that looooonnnnng toe, the shoe begins to arc up. If there was a tassel, voila, Genie shoes. Lots of guys have them in this cream color and even the little kids wear them. I just can’t get used to it. All guys wear a shorter version of these square-toed shoes, and they look strange enough.

I could write a book about the clothes. I have been wanting to keep a log of the combinations I see and the circumstances I see them in. For example, the other morning, “floor length, mauve lace swirl-cut skirt, mustard yellow and white ribbed polo top, black spike heels with ankle straps, going down the dirt and rock road that connects the two big one-way streets in Genja. If it starts to look normal, then I will be worried. (Okay, I am already worried, every woman’s favorite color here is lime green – enough said.)

Thank you for all the emails, it is fun to hear from everyone. I feel that in some ways each person is a compendium of all the people we know and care about. There are so many things every day that I take note of and think, oh, I wish so and so could see that, or so and so would really appreciate this.

It is so cool to think that I am carrying a bit of all of you around with me every day here and your eyes and view points are showing me things I never would have seen or noticed without you in my life. And if I have left some of your favorite things out, don’t worry, I’ll go there. I could write on and on, but I am afraid you will wear out the scroll buttons on your computer keyboards.


August  Ganja, 2005 – First Month at Site

Today, I want to write about electricity.

(Also the cops, the weather, safety and security and possibly chickens if I get to them.) [note from the author: due to the scrolly-read nature of these posts, it is perfectly permissible to skip past the bits you find boring, even advisable.] I am totally fascinated by how electricity is treated so casually here. Especially since the country operates on 220.

The other day, I was waiting outside the iron doors for my host mother to let me in the courtyard and I looked up at the electrical wires leading into the house. And there above me, were the live wires, insulated coating stripped off, and the ends wrapped around the pole wires (it looks just like the way picture wire looks at the back of a picture) and the wire draped over the wall into the courtyard. On the inside is a kind of fuse box. It consists of that wire from the pole going into this box and some electrical tape mating it to some other wires. No breakers, nothing, just an electric meter and one fuse for the whole house.

Twice, once here and once in my first house, the electrik uste, (master) came by to work on the electricity, they used a knife and a scissor, and did not turn off the current either time, wear any kind of safety gear and were working with lit cigarettes dangling. At the Genja mountain house they had a nifty little tool to see if the wires were live, it was a light bulb with two wires attached to it. They would touch the stripped ends of the wires to the ones they wanted to test, and if the bulb lit up, that meant the wire was live. The other day, I saw a man up on a ladder on the street here, working on the big electrical wires and he wasn’t wearing any safety gear and the ladder was a couple of two by fours with some pieces of wood nailed on for rungs.

This is the ladder I see everywhere, no matter how big the construction project. Mostly the workers are wearing rubber shower shoes. I am afraid to look. There is no such thing as health insurance here and hospitals are very expensive. People do a lot of home treatments.

At home, everyday, more than once, I would hear the sound of a siren, maybe police, or an ambulance or a firetruck. Every so often, I hear a noise like that, but it is coming from a car. Some guys install these wah-wah sirens in their cars and use them like a horn when they are passing. But there basically aren’t any fire-trucks, ambulances or emergency services of any kind.

This is a dangerous place, it hasn’t been all cleaned up and sanitized and safetyized like much of the U.S. And even the littlest kids know it. From birth they are trained to be careful and it is very odd to me to see what a different child this produces. Every day when I walk home from work, I see tiny little children outside their doors alone, (which wouldn’t be a big deal in America, but here the front door is just a sidewalk width from the street where the cars are all going just as fast as their drivers can make them). But these little kids are not running out in the street and they are not going to. The other day on the marshrutka the mini-van I ride back and forth to town on, a boy about two got on with his mother and a smaller baby. That little boy climbed on by himself, very carefully and then sat in his seat without moving, his little legs, straight-out in front of him on the seat, his big eyes staring, until he and his Mom got to their stop and then he very slowly and precisely climbed down the steep steps out of the van.

Lots of the kids are like this.

One of the things that they have here in the parks, are those awful motorized play cars. The parents pay for the kids to drive around in them and provide some loose guidance, but those little guys will run you down if you don’t watch out. (This is another kind of training, as you will see, if you keep on reading.)

These kids do play, they don’t really have toys, but I see them running around in groups in the evening, but they are not careless, like our kids are.

Their mothers are telling them, no “olmaz” that means forbidden, from birth. Everyone loves kids and they get affection, but they also get this training. The side effect to this training is that a lot of the young people are incurious and unadventurous, which hurts the country’s efforts to push ahead with modernization.

A lot of this country’s heritage is being conquered and occupied, which gives reality a different feel. I think you learn to keep your mouth shut, check things out and do things the way they were done before, to be on the safe side. And when you read the history of this part of the world, that’s probably a good strategy.

It gives me some insight into why everyone accepts the fact that you are in danger every time you cross the street. Little bent over grannies have to sprint for it when a car barrels down on them.

I believe the logic is something like this, the driver has a car, he is therefore a power to be reckoned with, the car is bigger and tougher than the pedestrian, therefore the driver rules. If the pedestrians all were armed with guns, we could even out this equation. Peace Corps doesn’t allow us volunteers to have either guns or cars.

But apparently, if a driver hits something or someone, really bad things happen, like police and jail and giant fines. So it is all like a scary game, where we all play and mostly no one gets hurt.

About the police, we are never supposed to call on them for help. Peace Corps has instructed us to call our own safety and security guy, Emil, who is a character, he used to work for the American Embassy. He also has a lot of connections with the local police and the ex-KGB guys who are now the country’s intelligence agency. He is kind of square-shaped, always smiley and talks like a Saturday Night Live skit, is very funny and promises if any one bothers us, he will make sure they don’t walk too good for a while. I believe him.

We had a very funny briefing, during our training, from the head of security at the American Embassy, some kind of ex-spook guy, who spoke in this sing-song, whispery hypnotic drawl and looked like Jeff Bridges. One of our more intellectual volunteers asked should we resist if we were attacked here and this guy just reared back in disbelief. “Are you gonna let the bad guys take you down?” he asked. And then when on to tell us his theory of weapon escalation, whatever the bad guy has, you get a bigger and better one. Well, you gotta know, that this is not a room full of ex-navy seals he’s talking to, but the cream of the crop of American geeks known as Peace Corps volunteers. Seriously, collectively, we probably couldn’t have taken this one guy down and there were 38 of us.

I did see a police incident this Friday at the Mosque, as I was walking home. A cop had this guy by his underwear, he was kind of puppet-walking him from behind by giving him a wedgie, and

there was a small crowd yelling and gesticulating, and who knows what was going on. I just kept going.

I think taking a guy down with a wedgie might be just my speed, Mr. Embassy Security, no need for guns, lead pipe, or what have you. Unless the guy is not wearing underwear.

The weather has been especially nice this past week, a week ago on Sunday a cold front literally blew in. Huge blasts of wind drove dust through the city and the temperature dropped about 10 degrees the next day and stayed cool through Wednesday.

There was a mini one of those today (Friday) while I was eating lunch with my tutor at the outdoor part of the Turkish Restaurant. One of the umbrellas blew off and was heading toward the street and a waiter chased after it and made the save. (Now doesn’t this sound just too, too roughing it.) I really do have it good, this is a cushy Peace Corps assignment.

Quick note on the chickens, this is especially for Michael. Chickens are everywhere. Right now some are squawking and clucking in the yard behind the wall next door. We have about five laying hens who live in the yard and have a little fenced home in the very back. There was an especially annoying rooster in the neighbor’s yard when I first got here, and every morning I fantasized about ways to kill it, don’t worry, I won’t go into details. Anyway, I think he landed in the cook pot, because I haven’t heard his obnoxious good morning in a week.

For those of you who thought chicken was a superior meat, I want to tell you that chickens will eat anything, they are even cannibals. I have seen a chicken eat chicken meat, and like it. On my way through the dump in Davachi out to my friend Mary’s house, I saw lots of chickens foraging around. Yum.

I see people carrying chickens, by their feet, upside down, all the time. This tranquilizes the chicken or else they are so stupid they don’t know they are upside down and being delivered to their deaths.

When I first got here I had asked my host brother, University student, city-dweller, works at a micro-credit non-profit, to show me how to get to town. I was meeting some other volunteers. Well, it was time for me to go and I went out to look where he was, and there was Elshad, in the yard with a knife, a chicken and a bowl. Needless to say, I went right back in the house and decided to eat lunch out.

More confusion, of course, everyone is going to a wedding this afternoon, and the whole family is here, the married daughter her baby and husband, everyone has been in the shower, including me. I am not sure if I am going or not. I know I have been invited, but I am supposed to meet three other volunteers for dinner in town at 7 and I can’t figure out if I successfully communicated that to my host family. I think I did. And I think they said I could come back whenever I wanted to. But, there is many a gap in my comprehension.

More later… I might have a wedding story to tell.



Small glimpses


More adventures to report, though rather small and some glimpses of my new city.


A week ago, Sunday I was hanging around in the afternoon with my host mother, and she was cooking up a storm, which is nothing unusual. I was thinking about taking a walk, when she asked me if I wanted to come up to the mountains with the her and her husband. So I said sure,

( passing up a special opportunity to be alone in the house, which is Snoopy-dance time for me).      


By the way, all this asking and answering which I make sound so easy, is actually a pretty laborious process, she chatters away at me in Azeri, I think a bit, try and say back to her what I think I understand her to say, and we manage to hammer out a consensus. Sometimes I am discouraged by how slow I think I am going, and sometimes I am amazed at what I can already understand.


We get in the car with some fried cutlets, three loaves of bread and a couple of jars and drive off to Xanlar and into the mountains (near the border of the bad place, the country we don’t name here. Also known as Armenia.) We go through Hacikend, a little village with the most gorgeous, dilapidated houses, Justin you would just love them. There are two in particular that are the coolest. One is a three-story house right on the edge of a drop-off. It looks like three different houses all stuck together, the middle one is lived in and is red brick with blue trim and geraniums on the balconies, The house on one end is falling off, all weathered wood and glass, just melting off the side. Another wonderful house is a Victorian-gothic-cottage with well worn turquoisy-blue trim. Looks like something out of a Baba Yaga fairy tale. It’s not a small house, but all the out-sized trim amd the ways the years and weather have shaped the walls, makes it look all little and squished up like a dwarf house.


I have been to the mountains twice with my Genja family, but we just roar through the village and on to our destination. I really hope to take some photos of those houses.


When we got to the mountain house, (it is someone’s abandoned project, huge, with an unfinished swimming pool in the basement), we had tea, naturally. The house is a white elephant, in this tiny village of about 15 old, crumbling houses. My family knows the owner and is just camping out basically in part of the house. They have made it pretty comfortable, by bringing a truckload of furniture from their house in the city. Since I was there the first time in mid-July, they constructed a tidy little out-house in the back yard. No running water, but a few light bulbs worth of electricity, and enough to run the electric kettle.


Then we took a bunch of group photos, which they were nice enough to include me in, and then we ate the food my host mother cooked back in Genja.


After dinner, the two sisters asked if I wanted to take a walk and to be sure and bring my camera, so out the big black gate we all went, One sister with her baby and stroller, and the other sister helping. Outside the gate, is a stream of women and children from the village, and like you always see in Azerbaycan, they are wearing everything from soft house slippers to heels to high-wedge shoes. We are all going to go on this nature walk together to the top of this high ridge above the village. And up we go, these three tiny, tiny boys, the size of a one-year-old in the states, but probably about two, climbing up the steep road, everyone shouting when a car approaches, Mashin, Mashin, One of the tiny boys was screaming with excitement when a tractor came by. He also wanted to hold onto the stroller with the baby in it and when he was very gently thwarted by his grandmother he threw himself in the road and started screaming. It reminded me very much of two dear little boys that I cared for.


Up the procession wound, off the road and up a grassy track onto the ridge. While we were climbing, the cow herds started coming down from the mountain pastures, (can’t you just see me in braids and a dirndl – I felt like I was in Heidi, or maybe part of the von Trapp family.) Off in the distance to the North was this craggy mountain peak, just coming out of the clouds lit by the setting sun colored lavender and pink. Sigh……….. Briinnggg…. the ring of a cell phone – got to go back, my host mother wants to get back home.


This may be my fault, because the Peace Corps doesn’t want us out in a car after dark, or they may not want to drive after dark themselves. It is REALLY SCARY.


About my city: It is the second biggest city in Azerbaijan and has about 200,000 people, so it is about the size of St. Petersburg (Florida, not Russia). It has a busy down-town with a big, magnificent municipal building, which looks very British/georgian/colonial style. There are tons of little markets, natch, and an old mosque. The mosque is being restored for use as a mosque. In Soviet Times it was used as a library. The mosque has a park, and right down the street from my work is a park. I have to tell you that every tree here is painted white on the bottom, about 3-4-four feet up. It does not add to the beauty. But I am kind of getting used to it. The park has some huge plane trees which are the trees of Genja. It also has three outdoor cafes with colored umbrellas and you can sit there and just order bottled water or even bring your own food. Parks here are different from parks at home, they have lots of paved walkways and there are there are curbs along the walkways, and inside the curbs are the areas where the grass (maybe) and trees are. Nobody ever walks or sits in these spaces. There are always benches on the walkway parts. The smaller parks have the look of an old-timey putt-putt golf course, that will give you an idea of the look and the layout. The curbs are usually painted a kind of faded red color and when you add the white tree trunks, it’s kind of a strange effect.  Genja  park are very clean, there are ladies who sweep the whole park in the morning, with these twig brooms, they are wearing these long, shapeless, print housedresses and scarves on their heads. And if they work for the city clean up crew, they have on bright yellow smock, lab-coat thingys with bright kelly green trim. These are the colors of Genja.


Across the street from the big park, is a children’s area with 50s era ancient kiddy carnival rides all painted red, blue and green and faded with the years. There is a bumper car ride that still works. It would make a fabulous movie set for a slasher film. You can buy cotton candy there, and they spin it on thin sticks of bamboo.


There is a favorite color here for the walls and houses, a soft, clayey/terracotta/pinky color, very close to the color of my old living room in my house, some of you will remember it. When I first got here I thought that some of the streets had gotten some kind of cheap paint deal, because whole blocks of walls and buildings were painted this color. But as I have gotten around town more, I see the color everywhere, it’s just a Genja color. Also, all the windows have bars on them, (some very beautiful and decorative) this is true all over the country. I keep asking people why, since there really doesn’t seem to be much crime. Apparently it is a remnant from the bad days after freedom from the Soviet Union, when gangs robbed and looted and people were afraid to leave their homes.


There is a big bazaar where they sell all the fruits, vegetables, nuts, bread, and mostly food stuff. There are other bazaar streets where they sell clothes, appliances, etc. You can buy just about anything you want here, but not a lot of Western-taste style things. Except I can buy Diet Coke, how good is that?


I still am amazed at the way people dress here, the young women are all very, very thin. I would say the average size is a 2. The words used to express beauty in young girls are gazelle, and deer. Here in the big city, they wear tight jeans or pants with spandex tight-fitted tops. Usually paired with very high heels. Or else they are wearing what looks like cocktail party attire, satin or chiffon swishy skirts with handkerchief hems and some completely unmatching top also with sparkles or lace or ribbon or some kind of ornamentation. Again with a very, very pointy high-heeled shoe, or wedge. I can’t figure out how they manage to walk. The interesting thing is that although the girls look all sexy, there is NO DATING or mingling with the opposite sex. It is all very Victorian, with marriages still pretty much arranged with the consent of the parents.


People don’t own very many clothes and when they leave the house, they usually wear their best clothes. Inside the home, people wear their house clothes, which are more casual.


Most of the older women wear the party-like swishy skirt variety of clothes out on the street and the shapeless mu-mu housedress at home.


I actually could fit in here, because my coloring and appearance is very similar to some of the people, but I bet you are laughing to think of me in a swishy skirt and high-heels. Ha! Not going to happen.                                  


There are a lot of people here that look Iranian, with dark, amost Arabic features, but there are a few redheads and blondes and plenty of people who could be dropped onto a street anywhere in America and fit right in. I see people with dark blue eyes all the time, though my color green is somewhat unusual.








Quirks and Foibles




I keep meaning to tell some of the quirky things about this country and somehow, I just keep forgetting, but here are a few:


Bread is sacred here, you always have to have the bread right side up. The loaves are basically flat and round or oval, so it is obvious which is the top. Also, you can never just throw it away. It has to be eaten by humans or animals. So everywhere you go, there are pieces of bread perched here and there because people couldn’t just toss it.

Also, the original religion of this land was Zoroasterianism, which is a fire-worshiping religion. And boy, do the people have a thing about fire. In fact one holiday, Novruz which is around Easter-time and actually involves coloring eggs (an old Pagan custom) people make fires and jump over them. (Another old pagan spring-time custom) And this happens everywhere, even in the capital, which is a big city. But everyday here, people start these little fires. In Davachi they were always setting the brush on fire, and they make these little trash fires all the time, even here, in Ganja, where there is garbage collection. I haven’t seen any house fires yet, though.


People are completely uninterested in us Americans. They really don’t ask any questions other than what state I am from and am I married and do I have children. People here love to talk about money and how much things cost. They are always asking me how much something cost me. My laptop, my camera, etc.


Everyone loves weddings. They put on these huge weddings and if you are well-to-do you have it in a Sadliq Sarayi, which is a wedding palace. They all have satin chair covers, mostly gold and burgundy, and hideous silk flower arrangements. There is always a head table for the bride and groom under a marquee-like, bandshell-like thing, with light up letters that say “Best Wishes.” More fake flowers, all over. Usually, 200-500 come, and the guests are expected to pay their way. Not in the capital, where that is considered tacky, but out in the rest of the country. If you don’t have money, you put up a tent made from blue tarp in your street (yes, they just close the street) and borrow tables and chairs from your neighbors. This is also how funerals are held. But for the funeral tents, they hang carpets on the inside walls of the tarp tent.


The weddings, called a Toy, last for about five or six hours and the whole affair is videoed, from the time the bride is picked up at her house, then the groom is picked up at his house and they ride to the wedding palace in a big procession of cars. The driver of the bride and grooms car swerves all over the road and pretends to try and hit people. All the family members follow in cars and buses.


It is all filmed in real time. And people never tire of watching the whole 6 to 8-hours over and over. I personally saw one wedding twice in installments of about 2 hours per night. People just love it.

Oh yeah, they have all these corny effects too, running water, cartoon doves, etc. Technology gone bad.


Girls still have doweries here, and there are stores just filled with dowery items. (They all pretty much sell the exact same stuff, because people here all like having the same things, kind of like keeping up with the joneses).  Fancy china is very popular and crystal and everyone has just about the same patterns of china and glasses. My Davachi family and my Ganja family have the same dishes although they are at completely opposite ends of the country and income scale. No matter how poor the family, you will find a cabinet full of gold-trimmed fancy teapots, dishes and crystal. For her 18th birthday presents, my Davachi sister got a set of glasses, a set of silver-plate trays, some frying pans and a bedspread set. She was thrilled. Most girls are married by age 22, if they are not going to University.


Let’s not forget the animal parts. Everyday while I was in Davachi, I would see a part of any animal, here a chicken head, there a calf foot, here a wing, there a scrap of fur, or a skull. One time on my way to school, I saw a cow horn on top of a rock on the school soccer field. The kids were using it for an out of bounds marker. I don’t see that anymore here in Ganja, while there are plenty of animals, there is also garbage collection. Everyday, though, I see cow legs or sheep carcasses hanging from a roadside butchery. The cuts of meat just hang out in the open. On the open road they wrap the legs and so forth up in cloth to keep out the dust, but you gotta think about the refrigeration issues. Mostly I try not to. Saw what looked like a whole, flat dessicated giant-mink like animal on the side of the road up in the mountains yesterday.


Right now it is mattress making season. Many of the numerous sheep have been shorn and their wool laid out, picked clean and washed and then the ladies lay it out on big rectangles of cloth and use the wool for mattress stuffing. In Sumgayitt, the third largest city in the country, women were making mattresses right out on the sidewalks and parks. I sleep on such a mattress, not bad, kind of like a futon.


On the good news front, there isn’t much I can’t find here that I want, the only exception is books. So everyone, save up any books you would like to donate and M bag them off to me. My address is Carol Laughlin, Suhl Korpusu Konullulu, c/o Ganja Business Group, 258 Ataturk Ave, Ganja, Azerbaijan, AZ 2000. (The words after my name mean Peace Corps Volunteer.) You go to the post office and ask for an M bag and they get out this canvas bag and you put the box of books in and you get a much, much cheaper rate than sending anything else.


I was really wanting coffee, but my coffee and Splenda came, my coffee maker got broken, but Alix is sending another and I might be able to find one here, as there are a lot of Turkish Restaurants and they serve coffee. They also make a pretty good pizza, and something very close to a Gyro plate called Iskandar (After Iskandar the great, Alexander to us Westerners). And I found a store that sells all kinds of Holland Cheeses, so my other big yen was filled. Life is good.


Oh yeah, here’s a real favor, I would like to ask anyone out there for. Could you clip out any crosswork puzzles you find and just fold them up and mail them to me in an envelope. I do miss them and some of the time here, I think I can’t even speak English anymore.


This is getting tediously long…. so more later.



July 16,2005


Well, it is hard to know just where to begin, things were poking along during my training and I just couldn’t seem to get what I needed to write a real blog entry. Plus, I needed to pull my blog off the web and make it for friends and family only.


Peace Corps is very worried about the effect our writing and opinions have on the host country. There were some volunteers who wrote stuff about the cleaniness of their host families and assorted other nonsense, which probably shouldn’t have meant much, but did.


Devechi, a small and dusty town. High unemployment so there are scads of men, standing around on street corners and sitting in the chaikhanas, (tea houses – dirty little three or four table cafes, with table covered with faded vinyl print squares and plastic patio chairs) ,smoking, drinking tea, beer or vodka, playing chess or backgammon or checkers, always wearing a crisp, pressed short-sleeved shirt and a pair of pleated dress pants with belt and pointy, squared-toed shoes.


Women carry their bags down the streets, recycled plastic merchandise bags from the U.S. filled with tomatoes and cucumbers, eggplants and onions. Usually they are wearing a filmy-chiffony skirt paired with some completely unmatching top, or a rayon print dress and with everything, high-heels or wedge slip-ons. Every day, I see women who would not look out of place at a cocktail party just walking down a potholed, rocky, dirt road on their way to or from the market.


It is a walled town, each house behind its own wall, sometimes I see little children peeking out from the two little doors set into the bigger metal doors that open into each courtyard. Doors are usually grey or blue. Occasionally somebody breaks out and there is a maverick purple or pea green. I think those are the results of a bargain paint buy, not any particular desire for that color. Most all houses and walls are white with natural wooden window frames. There is one little child on my block, can’t be more than two, who sits outside his or her gate on a big stone some days, not moving, or trying to run away, just solemnly staring. This is a great country for staring. People just stare endlessly.


When I am in the internet café, there are people staring at me, staring at my email, which they can’t read, when I walk down the streets all the people in the tiny little shops are staring (which is about all they have to do most of the time, business is not brisk.)


My little town has a corner store on every corner and some in the middle. Every store sells just about exactly the same thing. Tea, several varieties of vodka, the same wine and champagne, it looks ages old, tomato paste, eggs, lots of yag, which is an all purpose word for fat, could be it is butter or margarine, or whatever, cookies, plastic bottles of gasli su, which is fizzy water, they love it here, fanta, coke (it’s everywhere, everywhere) cookies and candy, sugar cubes (people eat sugar here like you would not believe.) All of us in the business training group can’t figure out why they all want to sell the exact same product. In the bazar, more of the same. All the produce sellers have tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, etc. I have gone past little outposts on the way to other cities where 10 or more people have set up stands all selling watermelons and orange melons. One after another. I guess that is why we are here.


In that vein, the fruits and vegetables are really good. Tomatoes are all ripe and all grown locally, that is one reason for the lack of variety. You eat whatever is in season.