Challenges of Place

“I know you’ve been to that area before, but…you know…you’re going to a dangerous part of the world right now,” my dad said during our phone conversation on Father’s Day, “it’s getting….interesting–I figured I should let you know in case you forgot,” he added in a half-serious, half-joking tone. I had a flashback to a conversation like this a few years ago before I left for Turkey. Unlike some other friends and acquaintances, he expressed his concerns only once and asked me not to go. Worn down by everyone’s repeated anxieties about my safety, I refused, said that I could get hurt or killed anywhere in the world, and stated that I was going to Ankara even if I had to walk the 35 miles to the airport while dragging my luggage.

Looking back, I probably could have handled his uneasiness much more graciously. He didn’t scold me like a child or seek to judge my decision, but simply took an opportunity for me to hear his opinion. I, on the other hand, had a harsh, knee-jerk reaction. So when this topic popped up during our recent phone call, I wanted to redeem myself; I admitted that I appreciated his concerns because I share some of the same sentiments.

For instance, Russia’s shenanigans (for lack of a better word) in the region are certainly curious and I found myself in a quandary: I couldn’t comfortably affiliate Azerbaijan’s geographic location to Russia like I used to. When I initially found out I was officially accepted for Fulbright, I knew full well that very few Americans can picture Azerbaijan as a solo nation; what country can I refer to to provide context?

*Pull up Google Maps* Georgia and Armenia are (at best) vaguely recognizable, the “stan” countries might as well be out in space, Turkey is close but no cigar, mentioning Iraq and Syria might put someone at their wit’s end, and Iran has an awkward place in American history that is slow to improve. Russia it was:

“So Hayley, where is Azerbaijan?”

“Oh, it’s right underneath Russia. In fact, you know where the Sochi Winter Olympics were located? *cue vague nod of the head* Azerbaijan is just south-east of Sochi.”

This was dandy until a few months ago; now Russia’s name is stained, people are concerned (even angry) at its recent aggression, and Sochi has left a bad taste in the world’s collective mouth because it seemed to usher in said aggression. So now, no matter what I say or who I refer to, I will likely cause some distress or anger or shock.

What is a girl to do??

I’ve decided that I can’t avoid Azerbaijan’s geography anymore: it is what it is. In fact, I’m going to find pride that it’s located in a rather tumultuous part of the world:

“So Hayley, where is Azerbaijan?”

“Oh, it’s sandwiched between Russia and Iran, kitty-corner from Iraq and Syria, and across the Caspian Sea from the repressive governments of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.”

“*Cue gasp* Oh Lord, isn’t it dangerous over there!?

“Nah–I’ll figure it out; I’ll be fine!”

“You are SO brave–I could NEVER do what you are doing…”

Huh, this is interesting: I’m commended for being brave–even before I’ve set foot on Azerbaijani soil. Looking back, it’s interesting how danger and bravery were ideas thrown around a lot when I was in Turkey. At one point, I was reprimanded by family for plans to go to Istanbul over New Year’s weekend. “You know we can’t help you–if something bad happens, we can’t save you.” That was too dangerous. Yet I was considered brave by many for witnessing some form of protest either on campus or in the city almost on a daily basis. I knew perfectly well that no one could save me over New Year’s weekend in crazy Istanbul, but not much more could be done while I studied in my dorm on a Tuesday afternoon as student protesters and police violently clashed across campus and tear gas fogged the air.

Now I’m starting to rant, and I don’t mean to be flippant, but my world view about international travel is this: You take risks while you travel abroad as a foreigner, but you take risks by default as a human on this earth. In the end, it’s good to be aware and it’s good to take precaution of your surroundings, but it’s unhealthy to be fearful of the world. I know that I can’t control these pending world pressures and events, but I want to understand them. I want to recognize the challenges of a place and see how people grapple with them–if they even recognize or accept the same ones that Americans perceive from thousands of miles away. One of the best ways to understand the human condition in a context unknown to me (or us) is to go “over there” and stay awhile. To live as the locals live, form meaningful relationships, ask questions, and reciprocate their interests about my life and home culture.

Fulbright is giving me that opportunity.

How awesome is that? It’s a dream come true for me!

Until next time… (:

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