Pre-Departure

The Eve Before Departure

If I could summarize the emotions, ideas, and level of inner-intensity I’ve felt the last few days, it would be through this song, Cəngi (transliteration something like JENG-i), by the fantastic composer Üzeyır Hacıbəyov*:

Yeah, I’ve been feeling flurried. Antsy. Anticipating. Slightly crazy. To illustrate, let me outline a few thoughts bouncing around in my head; brace yourselves (or skip this post) because I might start ranting:

If you would have talked to me at the beginning of my semester abroad in Ankara, and informed me that almost exactly two years later I would be venturing to Azerbaijan as a Fulbrighter, I would have laughed in your face. First, I would pretend to know where the country was and then I would deny that I had any chance of becoming a Fulbrighter – that I could be in the running for a nationally-competitive fellowship. Plus, why would ANYONE want to go to a place as obscure as Azerbaijan?? Oh, younger me…never say never, I suppose!

So, I leave tomorrow, September 4th, and land in Baku on the 5th. The 5th happens to be my birthday (as well as my younger brother’s – cheers!), and I’m turning 24. I’m revealing that detail because it suddenly hit me: Azerbaijan and I are almost the same age; at least modern-day Azerbaijan. Actually, my arrival into this world is sandwiched between two huge events in Azerbaijan’s (and the greater Caucasus’) modern history: 1)  The start of a war with Armenia in 1988 (grave, genocidal atrocities committed by both sides; this will doubtlessly come up in the future), and 2) Its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. I sense that Azerbaijan, barely in its twenties, is “finding itself”: How do “the crossroads between east and west” continue that heritage while also assuming its own identity? To what extent do Persian, Russian, and Turkic cultural histories intermingle or separate? How do Azerbaijani citizens identify themselves in such a context? Azerbaijan’s liminality really appeals to me, perhaps because that’s kind-of how I feel about my place in this vast world.

Now that I think about it – people talk about the possibility of traveling to “unknown places,” and the potential within those places. This can mean a multitude of things: finding a new galaxy in outer space, unearthing a new species from the deepest depths of an ocean, coming across “undiscovered peoples” in a jungle. When I was born, I wonder if my parents/family considered the chances of their daughter traveling to unknown places – of me venturing to a country that did not exist on September 5, 1990. I wonder about what the world will look like 20 – 25 years from now. With all that is occurring in the Middle East, I wonder how many “unknowns” will sprout up as wars continue and end, as entire ethnic populations migrate, as new political entities come to the fore. How many borders will be re-drawn? What areas will flourish, what will be abandoned? What will people think of their history? Will a place like Iran or Iraq, shut off from greater America today, be opened to programs like Fulbright in just a few decades? In a sense, today’s Iran or Iraq is yesterday’s Azerbaijan; there was little hope of its survival circa 1991 and now look at it! History tends to repeat itself, so….never say never, I suppose!

And there you have it – my words of glorious insight (or insanity) on the eve of my departure. Thank you, everyone, for your support thus far. Hopefully things will only go up (with the occasional hiccup, it’s to be expected), and I’m happy to call you all my companions as I venture to this new corner of the world!

Until next time…. (:


 

* Üzeyır Hacıbəyov. If I were to say that Hacıbəyov’s musical and cultural importance is to Azerbaijan what Tchaikovsky’s is to Russia, that should explain his importance. I’m still learning about him, but one of his accolades is his opera, Leyli and Majnun, the first opera produced from a Muslim country. He’s also known by composing the current anthem of Azerbaijan, but (perhaps more interestingly) he composed its anthem when it was a Soviet republic. If you care to learn some history, here are links to both: Current Anthem; SSR Anthem

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Southern Interlude

At this stage in my life, I’m calling myself a “semi-adult.” I guess you can say that I “stunted” the process of flourishing into a “full adult” this past year after graduating from college and didn’t heavily pursue the job market because 1) I simply freaked out and did not feel ready, 2) I wasn’t committed to the idea of settling down in West Michigan permanently, and 3) Mobility = freedom; I wanted to give myself the freedom to do something crazy, such as live and work abroad for a while. Why start to ingrain myself in a new job or career when I knew I wanted to leave within a year? So I kept my job as a sales associate at a local hotel furniture liquidations business and took all the steps necessary to make sure that I could leave Michigan/the United States by the end of summer 2014.

Boom. End of summer 2014 has come and my departure for Azerbaijan as a Fulbrighter is right around the corner. My portion of the lease on my house ended, the utilities are transferred to a roommate, my student loans are deferred for the next nine months, my car’s registration and insurance is all figured out….I am “free as a bird” as my father put it, and that’s pretty freaking awesome.

But, where is a girl supposed to put all of her stuff? Where can she keep her little, trusty, red Toyota Corolla?

That’s what parents are for! Mine moved to Jackson, TN about a month after I graduated college last year. They were extremely gracious in offering their spare spaces to house my belongings during my stint abroad and I took them up on their offer.

So a few weeks ago I said heart-wrenching goodbyes to co-workers, friends, skating peers, house pets, and favorite places. I squeezed what I could in my Corolla and trekked some 650 miles in 11 hours. Thank God for good music because I would have gone insane otherwise!

And basically I’ve been bumming around south for the past 2 weeks. And now I’m going to post pictures below because I can do what I want. And if you’re wondering when I’m going to start posting photos from Baku/Azerbaijan, you have to wait just a little longer!

Cypress Grove National Park, TN

According to my mother, I needed to get acclimated to the weather in Tennessee (my sinuses were in shock jumping from mild-summer Michigan to 90+ degree Jackson), so we went to Cypress Grove National Park, which is stuffed with bayou-like vegetation. Apparently this is one of the furthest points north in which bayou flora is found.

Really leafy, really dense.

Really leafy, really dense.

The park also serves as a rehabilitation habitat for injured birds of prey. Here is a bald eagle!

The park also serves as a rehabilitation habitat for injured birds of prey. Here is a bald eagle!

Peek-a-boo owl

Peek-a-boo owl.

Cypress tree roots don't dig very deep into the ground, and they topple over on a regular basis.

Cypress tree roots don’t dig very deep into the ground, and they topple over on a regular basis.

Approaching direct sunlight. Nooooo!!

Approaching direct sunlight. Nooooo!!

Ugh, so hot. So humid.

Ugh, so hot. So humid.

"The water was clear the last time we were here." I'm sure it was, mom.

“The water was clear the last time we were here.” I’m sure it was, mom.

But it was pretty; is probably more so when it's not 96 degrees outside with 90% humidity.

But it was pretty; is probably more so when it’s not 96 degrees outside with 90% humidity.

Space and Rocket Center, AL

Of course, there’s always time for skating and mom and I went to Huntsville, AL to officiate at a competition. It was even HOTTER and MORE HUMID than in Tennessee but at least I was in a rink for the majority of the weekend. On our way home, we stopped at the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. The iMax movie was amazing, and to be honest, a lot of this stuff went way over my head, but it’s totally worth the time!

The exhibits were cool; space suits!

The exhibits were cool; space suits!

Good words to live by!

Good words to live by!

Big rocket thing; imagine designing a building to store this!

Big rocket thing; imagine designing a building to store this!

"It's not rocket science!" Oh yes, yes it is.

“It’s not rocket science!” Oh yes, yes it is.

For as God-awfully hot as it was outside, the most impressive structures were outdoors.

For as God-awfully hot as it was outside, the most impressive structures were outdoors.

Things were BIG....

Things were BIG….

Freakishly big.

Freakishly big.

Like a sci-fi jungle of technology.

Like a sci-fi jungle of technology.

Patti’s Settlement and Land Between the Lakes, KY

On a different day, we ventured to the land of Kentucky to meet up with a family friend for lunch at Patti’s Settlement. After that we took a scenic route through “The Land Between the Lakes.” First, Patti’s….

SO HOT. But the flowers were pretty.

SO HOT. But the flowers were pretty.

Pasture in the settlement.

Pasture in the settlement.

Quite quaint.  (:

Quite quaint. (:

There was a petting zoo-type-thing. It's a llama!

There was a petting zoo-type-thing. It’s a llama!

I tried to make friends with the emu; I'm not sure if it liked me or wanted to bite my face...

I tried to make friends with the emu; I’m not sure if it liked me or wanted to bite my face…

Cute gift shop in the restaurant

Cute gift shop in the restaurant

Patti's is famous for their Mile-High Meringue pies. Actually, all of their food is to die for, so you're in for a treat regardless!

Patti’s is famous for their Mile-High Meringue pies. Actually, all of their food is to die for, so you’re in for a treat regardless!

Patti’s Settlement is at the northern-most point of the “Land Between the Lakes,” which is a huge swath of land dedicated as national parks, camping grounds, and animal sanctuaries. The lakes were created by man-made dams several decades ago located near Patti’s. The locals pride themselves on the marina and lighthouse. As a person who lived no more than 30-some miles from Lake Michigan for the past 14 years, I wanted to see what “marina” and “lighthouse” meant in the south.

Sure, it's nice.

Sure, it’s nice.

"I mean, it's a small lake - does it warrant the need of any lighthouse?"

“I mean, it’s a small lake – does it warrant the need of any lighthouse?” I had asked incredulously at lunch. Turns out, that’s the wrong question to ask!

Mom and I.

Mom and I.

My mother, being my mother, insisted we walk TOWARD a storm that was heading our way....

My mother – being my mother – insisted we walk TOWARD a storm that was heading our way….

Luckily we beat the rain back to the car and proceeded to drive along the Land Between the Lakes. Our big stop that we decided to do was the Elk and Bison Prairie, a fully-enclosed/gated habitat. I almost freaked out when the gate automatically opened up; it reminded me of a certain movie….

"Wasn't something like this posted in 'Jurassic Park'? Are we going into Jurassic Park?" I incredulously asked aloud.

“Wasn’t something like this posted in ‘Jurassic Park’? Are we going into Jurassic Park?” I incredulously asked aloud.

We drove around a few minutes, I was feeling grateful that I wasn’t driving – can you imagine a huge elk running in front of you? But, we soon came upon the other huge mammals of the prairie.

There they are!

There they are!

Grazing, chilling, moving at a leisurely pace.

Grazing, chilling, moving at a leisurely pace.

But holy mercy did they get close!

But holy mercy did they get close!

We slowly moved with them; it was almost like we were a part of the herd!

We slowly moved with them; it was almost like we were a part of the herd!

A baby! And I don't want to hear ANY comments about how "tasty" bison burgers are....I feel a kindred spirit to these guys...  ;)

A baby! And I don’t want to hear ANY comments about how “tasty” bison burgers are….I feel a kindred spirit to these guys… 😉

And that, dear friends, are some of the highlights about my time in the south. I’m finishing this post up less than 2 days before I leave. Believe it or not, I might just have a post for tomorrow since I’m ahead on packing!

Until next time…  (:

A-zer-blah-bai-jan

“That place you’re going to – how to do you say it?”

I break it down, “A-zer-bai-jan. It has a nice flow once you get used to it.”

“A-zer-*tongue stumbles*-blah-bai-jan.”

I try to suppress laughter, “Or you can say Baku, the capital city that I’ll be living in.”

Oh the joys of preparing to venture to an obscure country in the Caucasus! I’d be curious to know if anyone experienced similar challenges before they ventured to a lesser-known place (Azerbaijan or otherwise)…

Predicaments of Place:

  • The endless ways people pronounce and recall the country’s name is a continuous source of humor….Azer-blah-bai-jan, Astheworldturns, Who’sbekistan, Azeria. One of the more recent creations is, “So you’re going to ‘Awful-bai-jan’?” To which I countered, “No, I’m going to ‘Awesome-bai-jan!!” Quite amusing, actually. I’ve also been told that, “The ONLY reason why I’m learning how to say and spell that one country you’re going to is because you’re going there.” Friends, that is fine by me – that means I’m doing my job!  (:
  • The assumption that the country is in Africa; furthermore, I’m amazed that several people have made the off-handed remark that it’s by Zambia….which it’s not, because Azerbaijan is in a whole different continent and hemisphere. But Zambia….what an interesting commonality!
  • Assumption by affiliation: This can be explained through one conversation I had with a family friend, when I just started to apply for Fulbright last summer. Friend: “Where is Azerbaijan?” Me (totally failing to think before speaking): “Right under Chechnya in Russia, you know, where the Boston bombers are said to be from.” Friend: “Oh, so you’re going to teach English to terrorists.” (Needless to say, I learned a lot in that one conversation!)
  • World events: I discussed this at length in a previous post (Challenges of Place). I know that chaos seems to reign supreme in the Middle East right now, and I’m aware how close Azerbaijan is to all the action. But one thing is for certain: right now, Azerbaijan is stable and I willingly go to it.

Linguistic Tribulations:

  • I would love to spell Azerbaijan’s name as it’s written in Azerbaijani: “Azərbaycan.” Maybe I’ll do that in later posts, but it’s confusing for people – it looks familiar but very different at the same time. The ‘y’ makes some sense, but the ‘c’ has a hard English ‘j’ sound. And that ‘upside down e,’ or ə, throws people for a loop. So I’ll wait for now and maybe sneak it in later posts.
  • Speaking of the letter ‘ə,’ I will mention that I cannot believe how that one letter is not supported by any keyboard feature on my iPhone, nor by Prezi (the online presentation site I was tentatively planning on using for any lessons I might teach). They support the other obscure letters of the Azeri alphabet, which are shared with the Turkish alphabet (Ç ç, Ş ş, I ı, İ i, Ö ö, Ü ü), but poor Ə ə is left out…
  • Azerbaijan adopted the Latin script for its alphabet soon after the fall of the Soviet Union. Prior to that move, Azeri/Azerbaijani was consistently written in Arabic script from the 7th century up to the early 20th century. In the 1920s, attempts were made to apply Latin script, but the Soviet Union interrupted that process and required that the Cyrillic alphabet be used. (This website is pretty reliable and provides some good visuals.) So what does that mean for me?
  1. Transliteration. People’s names demonstrate this: I’ve been in contact with a couple people in Azerbaijan to figure out housing and all that fun stuff. One contact person is Orxan. That is how his name was introduced to me, but he signs his emails Orkhan, then my email ID spells it Orhan (which is the Turkish version). Another person is Mamed, which is how his name was introduced to me and how he signed his emails. But lately he’s been spelling his name Mammad. So which do I use? Which one is “right”?
  2. Text. Older Azerbaijani movies, newspapers, etc. use the Cyrillic script, which is awesome from an historian’s point-of-view, but just a tad frustrating since I can’t read it! Can I fluently read or understand Azerbaijani? No. But at least I can work through it! (For the record, I taught myself the Russian alphabet as an adolescent but currently, my recollection of the Russian alphabet is nil. Time to review, I suppose!) Similarly, primary source texts in the Azeri language (prior to the 1920s) are written in Arabic script; so if I wanted to conduct studies on say, early Turkish/Azeri poets, I would need to rely on transliterations and hope they’re correct, or learn how to read medieval Turkish – challenges abound!

 Questions/Comments That I’ve Heard at Least a Dozen Times:

I don’t mind answering these questions, and I think the comments come from a good place, but it does feel like a bombardment at times!

  • Is it safe over there? I honestly don’t know how to answer that because I know that anything I say will not be good or affirming enough until I return.
  • Did you really choose that country – like really? Indeed, those Turkic countries have really caught my interest!
  • Will you have to wear a burqa or cover yourself? Nope.
  • You should dye your blonde hair, unless if you want to find a husband. If I have to learn how to cope with being an American abroad, then they have to learn to cope with me – blonde hair and all!
  • Don’t come back with a man! Don’t plan on it, but what if I do?
  • Are you going there for mission work? I have as much to learn from Azerbaijanis as they do from me; if religion comes up, I pray that it is reciprocal.
  • Azerbaijan you say; so Russia? I mean, it WAS a Soviet Republic….twenty years ago.

Ugh, long post. But, as I mentioned at the beginning, feel free to share if you’ve come across similar tribulations in your travels!

Also, I leave for Azerbaijan in one week – holy sh*t.

Until next time….  (:

 

Fulbright Europe/Eurasia Pre-Departure Orientation

“Fulbright Europe/Eurasia Pre-Departure Orientation” is the driest title for a blog post, isn’t it? Ugh, I know! But I didn’t know what else to call it, because for future applicants this title actually brings up excitement. If you’re applying for a Fulbright ETA or Scholar grant, you’ve probably seen the words “pre-departure orientation (PDO)” thrown around in the mires of paperwork you’ve started to go through as you learn about the Fulbright program. So what’s this orientation thing all about?

To put it simply, the pre-departure orientation is a gathering of Fulbrighters, grant alumni, and US Department of State officials that helps get you geared up for your time abroad. English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) arrived first (Sunday) to register and we had ETA-specific meetings Monday and Tuesday. Tuesday night saw the arrival of the alumni and scholars, and there was a meet-and-greet hour at the hotel. Wednesday and Thursday consisted of panel discussions, regional meetings, grant logistics, and country-specific chats. I arrived at my home airport 11:30 Thursday night stressed with the amount of preparation I had yet to accomplish and overwhelmed by the amount of information shoved my way, but also extremely excited. Going to Azerbaijan became much more of a reality than ever before.

Anyway, that was the schedule I experienced. By the sounds of it, the pre-departure orientation was different last year so I would expect changes to happen next season. I’ll note that Europe/Eurasia was the final orientation (very end of July); the other regional orientations took place earlier in the summer. It’s also to my understanding that not every Fulbrighter will have a PDO to attend because some host countries have actual Fulbright commission offices that host their grantees before they’re sent to their placements (e.g. Turkey). And, simply because I couldn’t confirm this before I received my invitation, I’ll let you know that the trip is covered by the program (travel, hotel, meal stipend), which is extremely nice.  (:

Since this is a rather dry post, I’ll break down my PDO experience into pros and cons, or rather, “challenges” and “highlights.”

Challenges

  • My time in DC corresponded with U.S. announcements of new sanctions against Russia. Every country represented at the orientation was either a part of the USSR or under heavy Soviet influence at some point in history up until very recently. In fact, I would say that over half of the ETA participants were interested in their country because of previous experience in Russia (through study abroad, language courses, majors in college, etc.). So when the welcome seminar started to turn into a ‘bash Russia’ rant by one of the speakers, I could feel the mood in the room shift uncomfortably. Fortunately, it seemed that the Fulbright collective was able to move on but it was something that struck me.
  • The ETA meetings. The first two full days were centered on the ETAs. Informational seminars were a combination of teaching methodologies and strategies (for English), classroom culture/management, and discussions on what our role as ETAs are in our host countries. For as interesting and needed as this information was, it felt rushed, so it was overwhelming. But I will commend the moderators and alumni who lead everything, they did an amazing job covering the amount they did!
  • One of the reasons why I want to go to Azerbaijan is because of the lack of information about it. So when I met people who had recently come back from Baku and listened to all they had to say, a lot of the mystery dissipated. In a way it was extremely comforting to get specific details about the city, but it has been challenging because I’ve started to develop ideas and opinions of Baku that are based off others’ experiences. This is probably petty to many of you, but nonetheless, I’m interested to know if other Fulbrighters experienced something similar.

Highlights

  • Meeting my fellow ETAs who are journeying to Azerbaijan. I think we represent a wide range of personalities and interests so there will hardly be a dull moment between us. I’m looking forward to exploring Baku and greater Azerbaijan with these ladies!
  • Meeting the ETAs going to other countries. It was a wonderful sense of community, we bonded over the fact that no one knew where our countries were located on the world map and other misunderstandings. It was similar to my experiences in Turkey with the group of international students I studied with: invitations to visit with a free place to stay were free-flowing, and it seems like a wonderful support network that stretches across the globe.
  • Meeting Fulbright alumni. How refreshing to meet ETAs who had just returned from their stints abroad! Full of helpful hints, tips, insider scoops, and words of encouragement, it was great to see how the Fulbright community continues back in the States.
  • The regional/country-specific meetings. This was when we could really talk with our alumni and ask them everything from “how do I pay my utilities bills” to “how many pairs of shoes did you wear down walking the streets of Baku.” History, social and cultural dynamics, holidays, transportation, gender roles/relationships, and much, much more were discussed – I filled several pages of my notebook with this wealth of information.
  • I encourage anyone attending future Fulbright orientations to take some time to explore DC, especially if you’ve never been there before. I took an evening to myself and walked the scant mile from the hotel to the National Mall. It was a surprisingly cool evening and DC was simply lovely. I took some pictures like a dorky tourist, which I’ve added below because I’m still experimenting with how this blog works.

 

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And that’s it for now, dostlar (friends in Azeri); until next time…  (:

Are the Pieces Coming Together?

As the majority of the audience of this blog knows (i.e. friends and family), I’m a skating official in my spare time. Actually, figure skating is such a large part of my life that I form free time aside from skating, since I can easily be gone from home at least two weekends a month at competitions, test sessions, etc. If you care to know, I hold appointments in two “areas” (to put it simply): 1) Music Coordinator, and 2) Judge. Impressive? Maybe. But the community is what is important to me, and many of my fellow officials have a huge hand in not only helping me develop as an official, but as a person as well.

Anyway, I was at a competition last week when I received an email from Fulbright informing me that the school I was originally assigned to (Azerbaijan Tourism Institute) can no longer host me, so I was moved.

I freaked out – thought I was going to have a heart attack. But I got a grip and reminded myself that seemingly drastic change happened ALL THE TIME to me in Turkey. *breathe* Yes, this was change, but I’m still a solid month-and-a-half out from actually teaching–really, the news has come in plenty of time.

Then I got excited. I looked up my new school, Azerbaijan State Economic University (ASEU), and was immediately attracted to the architecture. If I remember correctly from hurriedly scanning the website, the campus was finished pre-USSR days, so the campus buildings have….personality. As in there’s some depth and embellishment to the stonework rather than a flat, concrete box staring out onto the street. ASEU is also one of the top universities in Azerbaijan, and it has a robust student body with hundreds of attendees from around the world. I feel extremely honored at the prospect of walking through its doors as a semi-professional.

Then I freaked out again. My Lord, I’m starting over from square one. I am NO closer to finding a place to live, NO closer to knowing the types of classes I’m going to teach, let alone what my exact role is (e.g. co-teacher, conversation ‘expert’). Not to mention I haven’t applied for my visa or purchased a plane ticket….. *cue nervous laughter*

Fulbright is funny in this regard (keep in mind, this is MY opinion): everything is well organized, yet not; things seem to progress at a steady rate, yet sometimes I feel bumped back. My original school could no longer host me, but they found a new spot for me the same day; which shows an amazing level of efficiency. Yet the next second I feel hopelessly behind in my preparations and wonder if I will ever catch up…

So the main point of this post? Dear future Fulbrighters, know that this is normal. I was in DC recently for a pre-departure Fulbright orientation (I’ll probably write something up about that). I can’t begin to tell you how much better I feel after meeting peers and alumni. We’re all in the same boat, and believe me, it is not sinking; all the pieces will come together!

Until next time…  (:

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… (:

The Pieces are Coming Together….

What joy, what happiness! A few days ago I received BIG news about my time in Azerbaijan, which I can better rely as a list:

  • Dates. The embassy wants all ETAs to arrive at the end of the first week in September, and we’ll have an adjustment period to get settled. It’s quite possible that I’ll leave for Azerbaijan on my birthday (September 5th), or a day later. In any case, exactly two years ago from that date was when I left for Turkey, so I think that’s a good omen!
  • My Post. I will be teaching at Azerbaijan Tourism Institute (ATİ), or Azərbaycan Turizm İnstitutu in Baku (the capital city). I did some digging, found their website, and in the midst of Azerbaijani text, saw these wonderful words: “There are no translations available.” Really? But there’s a British flag in the top right corner, maybe if I hit it anyway some English will appear? No? Alright, then. So I get to test and develop my (very limited) Azerbaijani language skills in order to learn about the university. What I’ve been able to discover so far…
  1. ATİ was founded recently, circa 2006/2007 in order to meet the increasing and diverse demands that come along when people visit your country: language barriers, management, organization, activities.
  2. ATİ emphasizes the social sciences, area/regional studies, language courses, and management classes. Right up my alley!
  • Contacts. I have people to talk to, to ask questions about housing, about registering myself with the Azerbaijani government (and getting my residence permit–such a hassle!), about ATİ, etc. This is good.

So what’s next? The next big development is the Pre-Departure Orientation, taking place in Washington, D.C. during the last week of this month. There, I’ll meet the other ETAs and we’ll receive host country and teaching information. Needless to say, I’m excited (and nervous, but mainly excited) because developments are rolling along at an accelerating rate. Until next time….  (:

Europe? Asia? Middle East?

azer-LMAP-md

Azerbaijan is shown in the rusty orange color. How would YOU define it geographically? Picture from http://www.operationworld.org.

I few weeks ago I updated my phone. The timing was perfect because I figured I could ask about Verizon’s international coverage. Now, I was expecting the worst news about using my phone in Azerbaijan; two years previously there was much confusion about using it in Turkey and I did not expect an improvement with Azerbaijan. But hey, I’m trekking to the Verizon store anyway, might as well see what they say.

“I am accepted for a grant to go abroad later this year for nine to ten months, and I want to see what my options are for international coverage.”

“Oh really? Where are you headed?” Mr. Sales Guy asked.

“Azerbaijan.”

Wha–is that even a real place?! I saw that look ripple across his face. I could only mentally chuckle.

We made our way to the computers. “Where is Azer-blah….”

“Azerbaijan….”

“Yeah, where is that located?”

“You could try Europe, or Eurasia” I offered, considering that Fulbright categorized the country under those geographical designations.

“Could you spell that for me?”

I spelt it; “It might be under the Middle East if you want to try that.” I found this to be increasingly humorous. After researching Azerbaijan for the greater part of the past year, I’ve learned that no one knows where to place it. There it is, on the map–but is it in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia? How about we throw around the term “Eurasia” and really confuse everybody?

Mr. Sales Guy searched for some time before finally saying, with a slight hint of judgment, “It’s actually in Asia.”

My mind started racing: Asia? But that’s so…broad. Does Verizon mean “Asia” like China, Japan, or the Koreas? Because Azerbaijan is totally different from “that type” of “Asia.” And don’t give me that tone, Sales Guy, you can’t even say Azerbaijan’s name without fumbling.

This minor interaction confirms what I’ve concluded about Azerbaijan’s geographical designation: it is contingent upon personal interpretations (or motivations). For example, a mission/Christian charity is likely to place it under the Middle East because of its majority Muslim status. Meanwhile a university’s study abroad program (or Fulbright) considers the Russian heritage of the region and says that Azerbaijan is a Eurasian country–a ‘perfect’ combination of European and Asian cultural history. Yet several international business articles declare ambitious ventures in the European country of Azerbaijan. The academic in me finds this fascinating.

But, one of the main goals of Fulbright and similar programs (such as the Peace Corps), is to educate the American populace about other places. For those of us who are honored to travel under such grants, we provide insight into parts of the world that, basically, no one else knows about. We are representatives of “the other” even before we leave the country and actually have experiences. That’s kind-of stressful, but also pretty cool.

In the end, I left the Verizon store with a new phone but also with the gratification that Mr. Sales Guy is at least aware that there is a country in the world by the name of Azer-blah-bai-jan….or something like that.

Until next time….  🙂

Why Fulbright?

It was a dreary December evening in Istanbul just before New Year’s of 2013. I was weary and slightly cranky due to the strenuous bus ride from Ankara. I prodded my two travel companions, a German and a Brit, from their lethargy as the bus lolled into a station’s parking lot on the outskirts of the city. Somehow we knew we had to get off at this stop and transfer to a bus that would take us to Taksim Square. After some confusion and attempts to communicate in broken Turkish, we managed to shift our bodies and belongings to what looked like a retired school bus.

“So, is this the bus that will take us to Taksim?” One of my friends asked as we settled awkwardly onto a seat.

I laughed, we hardly knew where our hostel was located let alone which direction Taksim lay. “Hopefully….if not, we’ll figure it out–we’ve learned how to do that pretty well by now!”

I barely finished my remark before I heard a pleasant voice call to me in English, “Oh my–are you from America too?”

YES I AM!!! I wanted to scream, but held back. I peered across the aisle, past a few inquisitive Turkish gazes, and saw a friendly, smiling face.

We swapped info, and continued our conversation as we got off the bus and navigated through Taksim park (the same park that would hold thousands of protesters a few months later). Her name was Elizabeth. I liked her right away because one of my best friends is an Elizabeth. It turns out she was from Michigan as well. What a freaking small world.

We explained the reasons for our time in Turkey: I was studying abroad for the Fall 2012 semester, Elizabeth was serving as a Fulbright ETA in the northern region, near Trabzon (basically, in the middle of nowhere). She was meeting some fellow “Fulbrighters” for New Year’s weekend in Istanbul, I was essentially doing the same thing with my core group of international friends from Ankara. Elizabeth asked if I had heard of Fulbright. Indeed, I had, but didn’t think I was good enough “for something like that.”

She told me not to rule it out. Fulbright is more than academics, she explained, it’s about community. You plug yourself in somewhere locally, form wonderful relationships, and have other ETAs throughout the country for support. “We’re everywhere!” she said. Fulbright suddenly had a new appeal for me.

Yet I didn’t think about it too much then. We still had a long night ahead of us to find our hostel. Plus, my heart was beginning to break at the prospect of leaving Turkey about a week later. Elizabeth and I parted ways in front of Taksim’s large monument after she assured me that her friends were just down the road.

But the memory of that brief, seemingly unimportant conversation eventually came back during the final semester of my undergraduate education. From then on, Fulbright was implanted in my mind…

And now look where I am.

So, thank you, Elizabeth from Michigan, for being a quiet, unexpected inspiration for me.

Limbo Year / Why Azerbaijan?

Note: This is the final post of my other blog, Turkish Musings, but I think it forms a good link between my experiences in Turkey and what is to come in Azerbaijan.

So. Almost an entire year has gone by since my last post. I’ve kept up on Turkish news, watching the various protests, social media bans, government election drama, and most recently the mine disaster. I find it funny how this place has almost become an obsession for me. Turkey and the greater Turkic region has captured not only my academically-minded attention and intrigue, but my heart as well.

I took this past year after graduating from Grand Valley State University to think about life. I dubbed it my “Limbo Year” and I sure felt liminal the majority of the time. It turns out that seriously asking myself ‘life questions’ is very difficult and emotional: “What makes me happy?” “What do I want to pursue in life?” “What are my motivations to live life completely and honestly?” “How can I live now so that 10 years, 25 years, 50 years, etc. down the road I don’t have regrets?”

While undergoing this mental and emotional exercise (or torture, I might call it), I made the decision to apply for a Fulbright ETA grant (English Teaching Assistant). A huge perk of applying for Fulbright is the liberty to choose the country I want to journey to. But this also proved to be a challenge; I could only choose one. Initially, I was thinking about Indonesia, largely because I wanted to compare Islam between Turkish and Indonesian contexts. Plus, Indonesia simply looks amazing–I dare you to Google image it and NOT become captivated.

It turns out, though, that Indonesia is on the Equator and I don’t do well in humid heat. I learned that after my parents moved from our home town and I remained in West Michigan. I relocated temporarily into a house with 5 other girls and no AC. My job also lacks AC. This was during the hottest summer in Michigan in several years. I got no respite–almost died.

Okay, so Indonesia is a no-go. I turned my attention to Central Asia, also known as the “Turkic World.” For as tempting as it was to return to Turkey, I knew deep down that I wanted to use my experience there as a launch pad toward other places. What about Turkmenistan? The desert environment and extremely repressive government (seriously, people are required to obtain a permit to leave their home city–woah) quickly dispelled any desire to go there. Similarly, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and the Kyrgyz Republic seemed a little too….too….weird? Uncomfortable? Like I’m not ready for “those types” of places? Something–they just did not feel right.

I obsessed over the world map. Where to go? Where to go? I thought about Turkey again but tried to remember the other places that people talked about during my time there, and one location repeatedly cropped up….

“You really should visit Baku.”

“Baku? I’m sorry, but where is that?”

“Azerbaijan–Baku is the capital,” eyes peered suspiciously at me, “You DO know where Azerbaijan is, yes?”

“Yeah, duh–it’s by Armenia and Russia and Georgia.” I blurted out to prove that an American knows exactly where this obscure country was located in the Caucasus. “But what is so special about Baku?”

The suspicious eyes visibly transformed into a starry-eyed gaze that looked past me, almost as if the speaker was witnessing Baku’s lively cityscape right that second. I received different answers at this point, but they were always accompanied by this sense of wonderment. “Baku is ancient and modern.” “It is a Turkish Dubai.” “There are so many things to do there, many young people live there.” “Baku is just beautiful.” All of my Iranian friends had been there, in fact, one of them worked for Azerbaijan’s government after he received his undergrad from Middle East Technical University in Ankara. I asked him if he would go back.

“I would. But you should go–soon. You would like it.”

Huh….interesting.

I subconsciously filed those conversations–and there was a surprising number of them–in the back of mind. Slowly, in the months after returning from Turkey and as I considered the next big step in my life, those discussions unfolded in my memory to reveal that Azerbaijan was there to link me between Turkey and the greater Turkic world. But more than that, Azerbaijan is an entity steeped in complicated historical dynamics and a multitude of cultures–is it fascinating because of its liminality. There’s no better time for me, a liminal person, to study a liminal location!

I applied for a Fulbright ETA grant to teach and live in Azerbaijan for one academic year…and I got it.

I got it. (Thank God/MaşAllah!)

So to conclude this long-winded update on the blogger: Turkey threw me for a loop. I often tell people that instead of falling in love with a man abroad, I fell in love with a region and its cultures, histories, and languages. Now I want to see how possible it is to intimately understand the Turkic world as an “outsider.” Going to Azerbaijan is one step in this process, but I’ve become extremely captivated by this obscure, tiny country in the Caucasus.

And I cannot wait to explore it.

Until next time….