First off I should note that Azerbaijani life is different in ways that I never expected. Before arriving here I thought perhaps this may be like that, and different traditions would be practiced. It is also a Muslim culture. I am still learning about what that means. I am realizing that it includes major assumptions about gender roles and peoples’ attitudes. Life is different here than in America for sure, the people value different culture aspects in different ways than I do, but above all they are people. They have the ability to reason and react. It seems silly to say, but I feel that I didn’t credit that enough to folks initially. I think I assumed that our differences would dominate relationships. But rather it is common grounds that most of my interactions with others occur within.
A typical day starts at 7:30 or 8 in the morning. While at my permanent site it has been winter all the while. I do not have heat in my room, so I wear a hat, scarf, gloves, a couple pairs of thick socks, a couple layers of clothes and wrap my body tightly in a couple blankets before tucking into a thick sleeping bag. It seems almost extreme to write it out, but it definitely gets cold here and these measures I find to be necessary. It actually has been a really great opportunity to truly be grateful for the times when I am warm. At first it was exciting (something like camping!), then I was grouchy about the situation, and I am glad to say that I have found a place where I can appreciate it. On the extra bright side, at least it is never stuffy. The air is always crisp in my room!
I love when I wake up a few minutes before my alarm clock. I always loved that in the States, but here the potential for it is more likely. I never got a lot of sleep in the States, and here I get plenty. My sister and I have talked about how important this is. At Purdue there were some nights when I had so much work to do that I had to stay up nearly the whole night. A few nights like that in a row and I was running on pure faith. It was mentally, physically, and inevitably emotionally stressful. I will take advantage of the time that I get to sleep, and sleep well here. I don't oversleep, but rather try to get just enough. Even on the weekends I don’t sleep in. I want to make use of the daytime. It’s all about balance.
If I am able to wake a few minutes early, I peek my eyes out from under my sleeping bag. Take a deep cold breath in and begin to come back to the real world where I realize that yes in fact I am in Azerbaijan and yes I must get out of bed soon. Just five more minutes.. I really do not spend a lot of time getting ready. I never spent much time earlier, but for different reasons. I try to make the amount of time I spend changing as short as possible so I don’t have to bare the cold for any longer than necessary. I will likely change into the same outfit that I wore the day before. I only have a few work appropriate outfits to choose from for most days. It is common for most people to wear the same outfit for a week at a time. Someone might wear the same pants to work for a month in a row. However, everyone dresses nicely. Imagine it, girls wear heels to school and nice black dresses or sleek pants everyday. Even the farmers in the fields wear suits and dress shoes. Initially it was something that really stood out to me. I am definitely loosing sight to it, but I still recognize that everyone dresses nicely. I do not fit in at all. Even in my best effort to dress nicely I always come in last. This is okay with me. I just hope that I don’t offend too many people by appearing that I don’t care enough or purposefully meant to be disrespectful.
The thought process was short-lived and I pull on something similar to what I wore the day before. I run my fingers through my hair and attempt to fix the damage a good nights sleep can do to ones hair. It never is too spectacular, but I must get moving and I know that I will just put my hat back on for the walk to work. –I grab my bag that I packed the night before, grab my laptop, and pick up my coat before heading to the living room area where it is sure to be much warmer. I slip quietly into the living room, because for the winter it doubles as my host brother’s bedroom. He also doesn’t have heat in his normal room, but has chosen to hibernate in the living room for the cold months. My host brother works a shift at the big milk factory in town. Jobs are hard to come by here, so he doesn’t complain too loudly about the hours and the shifts that change. He works evenings and mornings on alternating weekends. I creep into the room and it is evident that someone has been up earlier. It was probably my host mom. The water kettle is warming on the ‘petch’ (or a stove-like heater in the middle of the room), cheese (nothing like anything I knew in the States), and bread are sitting on the table ready to be eaten.
Before I can eat or drink anything though, I must visit the restroom! I scurry through another door and down the steps and outside. I slip on some slipper like sandals that are made big enough for my dad and head over to the small stand alone room in the corner of the yard. What one will see behind the door is nothing that will soon be making any technology advancement news. It is a hole in the ground. I am sure you can imagine the next steps. –I am not exactly sure how it works for everyone else, but I am the only one who insists on using toilet paper. There is a sink with freezing water to rinse off my hands before heading back to the house to enjoy a cup of tea before heading to work.
Unfortunate side story related to the toilet. I lost my telephone to the hole. It was a dark night, and the end of my phone.
My walk to work has become the talk of my office mates. In the first week I was able to get a ride from them, but I have since established my independence and begun to walk to and from work. The walk is a half hour one way. However I take these moments of time to learn new paths and travel different ways to get to the office. I enjoy learning the city in this way and I appreciate every minute of time that I can spend outside and walking. I have a circuit path that takes an hour to walk from home to work. If I awake earlier enough, or leave the office in time I am able to take this way. My walk to work can be the best part of my day, and other some days it is certainly not the highlight.
This I must explain. My walk to work has become several things. Foremost it is a humbling learning experience. –First off, I love my walk because at the moment it is my only form of exercise. It is a chance to move and breath air beyond four walls. In the States running and just walking outside were stress relievers and considered good things. Here the attitude towards physical exercise is not the same. And what a shame! When I arrive at work my cheeks are usually beaming red and everyone feels the need to point it out. Its cute and fun for the first couple weeks, but after a certain amount of time is just becomes the same old routine. Even so, I entertain it and have learned that there is a saying about healthy mountain people and their red cheeks. Since exercise and walking too much are not desired free time activities by anybody native to this place, everyone assumes that my walk must be the worst part of my day. My language is still weak, but I try to explain that I actually really enjoy it and I want to walk. My back-up justification is that it is a way to learn my way around town. I am not sure how long that excuse will work. –I will exercise in my room and start a bike-riding club when the weather gets warm enough to take showers regularly. Currently I am at one shower a week. I have my fingers crossed that the showers stay at this rate. Some volunteers go much longer without a shower!
Another reason my walk has become the talk has a more negative appeal to gender roles here in Azerbaijan. Simply put, women are not to walk about outside. It is inappropriate. Women in general stay in the house. They most certainly do not drive, so walking is their alternative is walking. However for young women to be seen walking around town (even if it was innocently to work or school) could be viewed as promiscuous. The public sphere outside the walls of a family’s walls is really a man’s world. Young men and boys hang out on the streets and sidewalks and smoke. There are no places that women can ‘hang out’ outside of homes. There are restaurants and teahouses that men go to hang out, talk, smoke, and of course drink tea. I have a host brother that stays out at all hours of the night. He comes and goes as he pleases. However I am expected to be in before dark and of course there is no appropriate reason for me to spend any time anywhere but home and work. No one smiles and there is little talk on the streets. I am learning, but I see that women especially walk with blank stares at the sidewalk or straight ahead as though they could be walking through a cloud. The absolute worst part of being a foreigner is that many people stare. They don’t smile or say hello, even women but especially men stare. They watch you coming and I can feel their eyes follow me as I walk on past. As my language improves I am realizing that sometimes boys and young men say really rude comments as I pass by. Coming from a place in Indiana where is considered polite to acknowledge peoples’ presence, strangers and friends alike in passing to a place where that same behavior is perceived in the exact opposite way is really difficult for me. The longer I am here and the more I talk to others and get to know people I understand more and more about why this is accepted. In not acknowledging, or greeting people as people pass is seen as a sign of respect for people’s personal space in the public sphere. For me it has also been huge in learning the reality of differences in how men and women live and the starkly different roles they are expected to play. Regardless it is still a difficult aspect of living Azerbaijani life.
The differing gender roles are a prominent theme that reigns supreme in projects that the volunteers undertake. Talking with girls and young women we can see how this accepted role that men and women play is often accepted and most often submitted to. This is a reality of what life is like here in Azerbaijan even though it is something that I find difficult to appreciate. It is also a very important reason I and other American volunteers should be here.
Anyway I somehow arrive at work. There is a system to greeting everyone. The men get a handshake and I give a weak handshake and kiss on the cheek for the ladies. It happens everyday in the same way and takes up a good portion of the being of work. A solid half hour (or more depending on how cold it is) is spent greeting and making small talk. We don’t have a water cooler so we stand around the heater in the middle of the room. As best I can understand everyone talks about their families, prices of things, weddings, and illnesses.
My office is actually a very organized place. They have tasks to accomplish each day. Right now there is a lull in work 1) because its cold, and 2) some budget things need adjusted to get a master schedule in place. I have a couple things to do with translations and researching some things that are more available in English. I absolutely love visiting the field. Time with farmers is the best! Beyond introductions I might as well be a fly on the wall, but I enjoy the time that I get to be in the villages regardless.
Lunchtime rolls around at 1 everyday. My family, my work, and it seems that every business in town recognizes the same lunch hour. There is a beauty to it, but just remember that nothing will be open at this time. Since I am a lady I have decided to stay with the other ladies (there are three others at the office) and eat lunch in the office. There is a kitchen at the office that we heat up our foods and enjoy a cup of tea before going back to work. –This time can actually be stressful for me though. I realize that no matter what I choose to bring to eat, it is never enough. The other ladies will always feed me. After a couple days of this I began to think that I must bring more and more complicated foods (I tried bringing oatmeal and eggs on different days and they did not like that). I felt guilty eating their foods. But after a significant amount of time and bringing larger portions of more meal like foods, but still being fed by the other ladies I see that it is not really about the food. There is a beautiful thing about sharing your food with those around you. Everyone in the office does it with candies and sometimes cookies at teatime. There is a saying that means something like to share what you have is a beautiful life. Even though I am not very good at carrying little candies with me at all times to share with others, I realize that accepting these gifts is one way to validity others’ feelings and for wanting to share what they have. It is actually a really beautiful thing.
A couple days in the week I do other activities within the community. One is my Azerbaijani lesson, and the other is co-leading an English conversation club. Both of these events are good to spice up the week. Comparatively life here definitely lives in the slow lane. So I am excited for any change in the schedule. I hope this week will be the beginning of a semester of Friday mornings in a first form English class at my Azerbaijani teacher’s school. They children are something like first graders, and I have been there once and know that they are going to be so much fun! The English club that my site mates and I co-lead at a local community center is a favorite weekly event. One week we had 10 kids show, and another week we had just three. It varies in the folks that come and their English levels. Interesting enough, it is always a learning opportunity for all of us.
When the workday is done I scoot home. As long as I have feet that work I insist on walking. Being a volunteer I am not required to be at the office all day. I figure I might as well come early in the mornings, but my evening leaving times vary depending on what else is happening, or if I need to do laundry. I feel like Cinderella though. I have to be home by dark. Even though this norm feels very restricting I don’t want to be out past dark. There is an especially large population of men and boys that fill the streets. Outside in the dark is not a place that I want to be. A couple times I have ridden in a car around town with my family after dark I have gotten a small glimpse of life in the Azerbaijan darkness.
Evenings can range from really quiet to very busy. I spend the time in my home or the neighbors. Typically though my family will watch hours and hours of really interesting Turkish drama television. I usually sit with my family and type away on my computer. I have watched enough of these shows to see what they are all about. They are drama filled with love triangles and plenty of domestic violence. They also have really cheesy face shots of all the characters involved in a scene. Imagine it. Ten characters all take place in the same scene and witness the same thing. The event is replayed and each person gets his or her face of the screen for a five consecutive seconds. My family seems to really enjoy them though…
Weekends are usually especially calm. I have two volunteers near my site and we have spent at least a day on each weekend together. We get together, speak English, and usually make some old familiar foods. It has proven to be a really good time. I am really lucky to have two really awesome girls for site mates. They are cool cats. –We are all so different too. Part of what the Peace Corps attempt to do is represent the diverse population of the United States. There are three volunteers in the Agjabedi region, me, Leah and Gemma. Both Leah and Gemma are here are English teachers. Different regardless, it is an amazingly stretching experience and opportunity to realize that building relationships really has little to do with demographics. Again that sounds silly to write down, but it is incredible the thought process that just being here and living is sure to bring an about some thoughts on.
To finish off any day, I muster up the courage to reenter my cold room, pile on the layers and climb back into the sleeping bag. Most likely I will break out the flashlight and read a little before drifting off to sleep. In a few hours the day will start again. …Just as soon as I get the courage to crawl back out of the covers.