What’s that song, “I’m still standing, yeah, yeah, yeah…”?
It’s really hard to believe it’s been almost a whole year since I 1st stepped foot in Azerbaijan. Some days it has felt as though time is standing still, and yet then I turn around and find a whole new season has reached the edges of my town. New volunteers will arrive in less than a month, making us no longer the “freshman class”. The impending arrival of the newbies has got me reflecting over the events of the past year, the good, the bad, and the dirty.
I arrived in Azerbaijan on 24 September 2012. Upon arrival at the Baku International airport, myself and 2 other volunteers stood at the luggage carousel, dazed and confused as to why our bags were not slowly rotating out the magical tarmac shoot. I had only the pair of underwear I was wearing, but this was Peace Corps right? I mean a little hand-washing was pretty much going to kick start my street cred.
After attempting to fill out missing luggage papers, we were finally greeted on the other side of the arrivals gate by PCVs, our fellow PCT’s and PC staff. We were herded onto a bus and taken to our hotel cabins where we would begin 3 days of orientation. When we arrived at the hotel, a baggage handler kindly “helped” me with my suitcases, as I watched my month old MacBook Pro kiss the sidewalk, thus smashing the screen.
This was my FIRST 3 hours in Azerbaijan….
I signed up for a tough time right? I mean, most people do not have that kind of luck in the 1st few hours, but then again, anyone who has ever traveled with me knows that was a lucky day.
After orientation we were divided into “Clusters” based on our sector assignments (Business, Youth, or TEFL). We moved to our training sites to begin our 2.5 months of intense sector, language and culture training. I was scared to death of living with a host family, especially one I couldn’t communicate with. (I lucked out in the end; both my host sisters spoke enough English to communicate, making the whole thing far less scary).
Those 1st few months were full of gestures and animated conversations, as my host parents and I tried to get across our ideas. Some hand signals are universal really. Those nights certainly made for a lot of laughing. I found this family that seemed so strange at 1st, really became a family to me and I have been back to visit them several times since. Even bringing my parents to meet them when they visited!
Come December, we moved to our permanent sites. I was off to the North, to the town of Quba. Land of Apples and Mountains. I moved in with a new host family, this time with zero English but with more Azerbaijani on my part. Many more nights of gestures and dictionaries ensued. This house had far more people, 7 of us and only 2 bedrooms.
The winter set in and as a New Englander, I was humble. I learned a new meaning of the word cold. It’s hard to imagine it now, with the summer heat bearing down on us, but last winter was the worst recorded in Eastern European history in the past 50 years. Of course it was right? When I actually live here…more street cred??? I learned what it meant to not shower for 2 weeks at a time, and then have to carry buckets of snow in from the chicken yard to melt for said “shower”.
While it seemed that winter was never going to end, and the March snowstorms persisted…Spring did eventually peek in. This brought about a new transition in my Peace Corps life. Independent Living. Like a breath of fresh air, I moved into my own house (with shared shower, toilet, backyard and sometimes kitchen of course…I mean this is Azerbaijan after all). Quality of life improved in leaps and bounds as I finally had a space to call my own and I relished in it. Spring also brought about outdoor activities and produce that wasn’t cabbage. A variety in colour and food?! Amazing.
June kick started an awesome summer of summer camps and activity clubs and visiting friends. My parents came out to visit me and I took off to Thailand and Cambodia for my annual vacation time.
Somewhere along the line, I began to learn the ropes. The 1 year mark of “what on earth have I accomplished in a year” has started to set in, but that’s typical. My language improved and while my grammar may have gotten bit lazy, I am typically understood by most and praised for my knowledge or at least my effort.
None of my clothes fit as the “Peace Corps Diet” of running emergency laps between my home and the squat toilet in the backyard keeps me in great shape. (No really, a PCV’s dessert of choice is often wisely an antacid or antidiarrheal tablet. It’s not always pretty, but often makes for a funny story.)
I’ve learned that a fellow PCV, a well stocked external harddrive, and a couple of shots of Russian vodka are often a more effective method to keeping warm in the winter than your gas stove. Also that you will form a special bond with your long underwear. You become attached and often compare with other PCVs the way I "Once Upon a Time" talked about my stilettos.
I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how long it’s been since your last shower, because there is ALWAYS someone who can “outdo” that. And let’s face it; come winter, you wear your “I haven’t showered since” badge with pride.
I’ve learned there’s no way to stay cooler in the summer than to sit in front of my fan with a tub of watermelon in my lap and a friend to laugh with. Also hunting flies in my house provides not only free entertainment, but also a weird sense of accomplishment. Armed with my hot pink fly swatter, or sometimes even an impromptu flipflop, I have become a FlyNinja.
I've become very resourceful with my trash. Wine bottle candle holders? Wine Bottle rolling pins? (No theme with the wine bottles ha) Glass Jar flower holders? Sour Cream container tupperware? Don't mind if I do.
I learned a lot about myself, and I’m working on figuring out the person I want to become. With the incoming trainees, it will definitely be a time of reflection and questioning of my service so far. I’m looking forward to the challenge. Our AZ9 group started with 44. We are now 41, but we’re going strong and I’m proud of us. Who would have thought a year would have gone by already and yet here we are…still standing.