Fulbright ETA

Mystic Azerbaijan

During my undergrad studies I became fascinated with religious mysticism. Mysticism is religious practice off the beaten path; basically the idea that one is not dependent on a religious hierarchy/structure to have a relationship with the divine — whatever that means to the individual. It is universal; movements all over the world have shaken organized religions to their cores and I appreciate anything that challenges the status quo when it becomes stagnant.

And don’t think that mysticism, with its desert-living hermits and vision-having nuns, is a thing of the past. It’s a thriving element of spiritual life the world-over, including Azerbaijan, a country seeking a coherent religious identity as it navigates independence. The two places described below are full of mystic qualities, and are worth visiting as day trips if you get the chance.

Sofi Hamid Cemetery

Legend has it that in the 14th century, an Arabian merchant named Sofi Hamid was traveling southward through the arid steppes of modern-day Azerbaijan when he suddenly realized that he was dying. He asked his entourage to bury him wherever his camel rested; and today we have Sofi Hamid Cemetery.

Out in the middle of nowhere

Out in the middle of nowhere

Once we arrived (we hired a driver for the day, that was taken care of by one of my lovely colleagues), we went to the courtyard that housed Sofi Hamid’s body.

Sofi Hamid 2

Sofi Hamid 3

Right outside is a white camel. Women who want to have a baby crawl under the camel three times, but you can wish for other things too. I witnessed a group of women perform this ritual, and it’s fascinating.

Sofi Hamid Camel

Next to the camel is a bunch of small trees. Women tie tiny cradles made from cloth to the trees, again asking for God’s blessing to raise families. It immediately reminded me of the house of Mary in Ephesus (Turkey), the only other place I had seen people tie cloth as a symbol of their desires.

Tiny cradle

Tiny cradle

Hundreds of prayers

Hundreds of prayers

Now for the actual cemetery. A striking feature we noticed was that the monuments were all facing the same way:

Sofi Hamid 5

All faced towards Mecca…

Sofi Hamid 6

Differences abound in this cemetery compared to traditional Muslim cemeteries, and my local friends were great at pointing those out. For example, the plots you see above act as monuments and draw a lot of attention to that grave site. Traditionally, burial plots are meant to look this this:

A pile of stones, which in English we'd call "cairn" (I had to look that up). The reddish-pink ribbon indicates that the person died very young, i.e. before the age one typically marries

A pile of stones, which in English we’d call “cairn” (I had to look that up). The reddish-pink ribbon indicates that the person died very young, i.e. before the age one typically marries

Simple and basic. But those were in the minority…Sofi Hamid is famous for combining pre-Islamic traditions and themes to Islamic burial practices, which is better described in this article if you’re a nerd like me and want to know more details.

Colors

Imagine that you’re walking through this cool cemetery, you turn your head to the right and see…

BAM!! Crazy blue!!

BAM!! Crazy blue!!

Keep walking, climb over some random shrubs and suddenly…

An awesome shade of green

An awesome shade of green

And there’s more…

Like this...

Like this…

And that one

And that one

But there’s something for every taste, even more subtle ones…

Robin's egg blue, for example

Robin’s egg blue, for example

Gentle pastels...

Gentle pastels…

A breezy beach scene...

A breezy beach scene…

Motifs/Symbols

A majority of the grave sites had several images and motifs that indicated what that person accomplished in their life, such as a career.

This person was probably a driver

This person was probably a driver

Another driver? Construction worker?

Another driver? Construction worker?

This person was perhaps a tailor or cobbler

This person was perhaps a tailor or cobbler

My personal favorite was the samovar…I don’t know if that means they dealt with tea or made samovars; but it’s amazing.

Sofi Hamid 21

I want one on my grave stone when I pass

Sofi Hamid 20Then there are other motifs: snakes, deer, birds, fruit, etc etc…

Sofi Hamid 23

Sofi Hamid 24

Sofi Hamid 25

This looks like the story of Sofi Hamid...

This looks like the story of Sofi Hamid…

Sofi Hamid 28

Of course, I was fascinated by the combination of Arabic and Cyrillic scripts. Seriously, where else in the world would you see this?

Sofi Hamid 29

Sofi Hamid 30

Sofi Hamid 31And don’t worry, I didn’t just obsess over the graves, I enjoyed the company of my friends too:

Friends 1

Friends 2

Friends 3

 Beş Barmaq (Five Fingers Rock Formation)

On a separate day, the other ETAs and I connected with one of the Fulbright Scholars who set up a trip to Beş Barmaq. Beş Barmaq is a pilgrimage site mainly tailored towards those who practice Shiite Islam (i.e. Azerbaijan and Iran). I believe the rock formation, in pre-Islamic times, was a hub for ancestral/spiritual worship, and some of those traditions are still practiced today.

Besh Barmaq 1

A friend from home mentioned it looks like something from a Tolkien novel. I have to agree

Got a good work out too with these stairs

We met a woman on the stairs as she made her way down. She made sure we were covered correctly, and gave her scarf to Madeline without a second thought. I think we were each deeply touched by her willingness to help the obviously clueless tourists, and I’ll never forget her.

Bash Barmaq 3

Looking back

Looking back

Along the main path was a flatbed area where people stacked rocks. I’m sure there was some religious significance, but Dana mentioned that hikers often do this at the end of a long hike. So I’m going with that.

Besh Barmaq 5

Besh Barmaq 6

Then we climbed through the rock formation to reach one of the top peaks. Ladders and rails made from ersatz materials, and steps worn from heavy use made for a somewhat precarious climb. Not to mention having to worry about other people, especially the elderly women who somehow braved the trail. There was also a young woman who climbed in her wedge heels. Devout women, with the skirts of their chadors billowing behind them, drifted around the formation. We passed a couple others on the stairs and throughout the formation with faces uplifted, palms extended toward heaven, a friend conveniently nearby snapping pictures on her phone.

Hiking Besh Barmaq 1

Starting the ascent

It was intimidating, to say the least

It was intimidating, to say the least

View of the Caspian

View of the Caspian

In some places, old women stationed themselves on the ground, granting blessings after pilgrims donated a manat.

Besh Barmaq Offering

Or candy too, apparently

And like at Sofi Hamid above, people tied pieces of fabric in certain areas as they made a wish or said a prayer. Luckily our contact mentioned this detail to me, so I cut some strips for us to tie.

Make a Wish 1

Make a Wish 2

Of course, happy to be there  :)

Of course, happy to be there 🙂

And there you have it, another side of religious culture in Azerbaijan. I talked about the different mosques around Baku in this post, so I think it’s appropriate to add something different. Honestly, visiting Sofi Hamid Cemetery and the Beş Barmaq pilgrimage site are some of my top moments during my Fulbright year; and I encourage future Fulbrighters or adventurers in Azerbaijan to check them out.

Until next time…  😉

To Be An Expert Overnight

The other evening as I shoved potato chips in my face and binge-watched It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I was struck with this idea:

Never before have I been an “expert overnight” as often as I have in Azerbaijan. We’ve all done it, pretended to know everything about a topic to get through an assignment or bluffed our way through a conversation. “Here, talk to Hayley, she studied history.” “Uhh, what?” “Hayley, tell us, what is your opinion about _____?” Cue volumes of platitude.

We become experts on-the-spot to save ourselves from embarrassment, to persuade an opinion, to clear up misconceptions, to get the job done. When I explain to people here that I’m not a trained/professional English teacher, they often laugh and remark that I’m perfectly qualified because I’m a native English speaker. So it’s all good.

Therefore, even if I don’t profess to be an expert at something (or if I explicitely state that I am highly UNqualified), it doesn’t matter because other people say I am.

Fulbright pulls a similar trick and says that we’re “experts” on American culture. So we’re encouraged to give presentations, hold dialogues, and answer any question to the best of our knowledge. For me, it’s humbling — also scary. My God, I might be the only American some people are ever exposed to. What I say about my country and my time in Azerbaijan might completely form or alter someone’s opinion. So although I can’t say that I enjoy being an expert overnight, I can say that I’ve learned a lot, and hopefully I’ve helped others as well.

The rest of this post will explain some of the extracurricular projects I did at Baku’s American Center, projects that shoved me into the spotlight of expertise. Hopefully this will give you future Fulbrighters some ideas, and prove to people back home that I did more than travel in my free time.  🙂

“Michigan” as part of the 50 Stars Series

This last spring, the US Embassy started the 50 Stars Series. Each week a guest speaker gave a presentation on his or her home state, and created a short quiz for everyone to discuss at the end. The audience was a diverse group; equally men and women of all ages (youngest attendee was a kid who I’m guessing was about 10 years old). English skill of the audience was high-intermediate.

Tips for a project like this:

  • Include LOTS of pictures, use text for points or facts that are very important.
  • Take a minute to define special vocabulary (in my case, “peninsula”).
  • Find a way to directly relate your home to Azerbaijan (e.g. “Michigan is made up of two peninsulas, Baku is also on a peninsula, called the Abşeron Peninsula”).
  • Include excerpts from the news or music; it redirects their attentions and gives you a break!
  • Try to include something that dispels or challenges stereotypes of American culture. I’d heard comments like, “Americans are afraid of Muslims” or “It’s hard to be Muslim in America because they hate us.” I try to explain that Americans, for the most part, don’t care too much about what people do in their private lives (which I think we tend to classify religious beliefs as “private”) as long as you seem like a decent, hard-working person. For this presentation, I included a slide about Dearborn, the city that holds the largest population of Arabs in the U.S. They were fascinated and had no idea that Islamic/Middle Eastern culture could have as strong a presence as it does in Dearborn.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something. And praise those who bring up a fact that you forgot or couldn’t squeeze in. (e.g. “You forgot to say that Madonna was born in Michigan.” “Why I did, thank you for reminding me!”)

 Click here to see the “Michigan” presentation

“Azerbai–WHERE?! Surveying What Americans Know About Azerbaijan” as part of the Getting to Know the United States Series

I don’t know what got into me — I HATE giving presentations. And why I signed up to do another one mere weeks after my “Michigan” presentation is beyond me. It’s something else to put on your CV, Hayley, I chided myself, plus, people here LOVE talking about what Americans know about Azerbaijan.

So I devised a little experiment that seems very selfish in hindsight. As you see, I have this blog. One of the main goals of maintaining this blog was to improve knowledge of Azerbaijan back home. Of course, I can’t make drastic changes, but if friends and family learned a couple things through my journey then I would consider that a successful outcome.

I created a survey (sent only to Americans who volunteered to take it) that tested general knowledge of Azerbaijan. The second part centered on the effectiveness of my blog. For the presentation, I went over each question and broke down how participants answered (I encourage you to check it out, it fascinated me). Then I shared some comments from the survey and encouraged the audience to use social media to express their own journeys and exchange ideas.

Tips for a project like this:

  • Be prepared for any kind of audience. A class of elementary school children attended my presentation, along with university students. I was NOT ready for the school children, but the format of my presentation actually kept their attention (I was lucky). So, if you’re giving a talk that is open for anyone to attend, expect the unexpected.
  • Do something that you really want to talk about. Duh, you might be thinking. But when you feel pressured to participate in cultural activities, the things you’re passionate about don’t always come to mind. Don’t fret about what you think others want to hear, do something you are comfortable with or have a lot of knowledge of, and the audience will take what they will from it.

Click here to see the “Azerbai-WHERE?!” Survey

Click here to see my “Azerbai-WHERE?!” Prezi

Practice Interviews

I can confidently say that almost EVERYONE I’ve talked to here has made this comment, “I want to study abroad/work for an international company.” English is quickly rising in the ranks as a lingua franca of the region, and young people in Baku realize that if they want a decent job, they need some proficiency in the language.

The embassy recognized this too and hosted an “English Week” at the American Center in March. One activity was practice interviews, and several ETAs and staff members from the embassy acted as employers and asked basic interview questions. We only had 10 minutes with each person (there were a lot of attendees), but we were able to make notes and share some comments to the whole group afterward.

I remember one woman well, a local who worked with the Peace Corps as a coordinator. My jaw dropped. “You worked with the Peace Corps for 10 years? You should interviewing ME!” I confessed. She kindly insisted otherwise, but I’m still flabbergasted. Again, here I am barely getting started on a path to a career (whatever that may end up being), and, as a native English speaker, I act as an expert (of sorts) for interview skills.

Oklahoma Fancy Dancers

This last event I participated as an audience member. The embassy hosted members from a Native American dance troupe, the Oklahoma Fancy Dancers, and took them to several universities and centers in Baku. I commend those dancers — to perform and be sociable with that kind of jet lag is amazing.

For me, it was interesting to see the reactions of local audience members. They were star-struck, purely astonished. I could guess some of their thoughts when I glanced at faces, These people are from America? Do they always dress like this? Where do they live?

I was totally engrossed in their performance. First of all, just look at them — visually striking:

Fancy Dancers 1

Fancy Dancers 2

Fancy Dancers 3

It took me back to my childhood, when I first learned about these cultures; to when I was 17 and visited the Navajo reservation in New Mexico for a mission trip (a life-changing experience for me); to 2 years ago when I took a class on “The Peoples and Cultures of Native North America.” I grew strangely homesick in that moment. My reverie was broken when I heard a young woman, about the age of my students, ask, “I don’t understand…how can a person fight like that?”

She was referring to the war dance one of the male dancers was performing. He was hunched over, his short, padded steps fitting the pace of the beating drum. I tried to explain that it wasn’t the actual way they fought, but his dance tells the story. She seemed to get it, and she continued along with another student, “Did you grow up knowing about Native Americans?” “Did you learn about them in school?” “Do they dress like this everyday?” “Do they speak English?” “Where do they live?”

Some hard-hitting questions, but good ones. Yes, they might seem insensitive, but you have to start somewhere. And for me, I would rather someone ask an ‘insensitive’ question to clear up any misconceptions than have it go unexpressed, and develop into something more. I can only hope that I’ve done my job well here, and God knows I’ve learned a lot in the process.

And I also hope that you’re not asleep by the end of this.  😉

Until next time…  (:

Long Weekend in Lənkəran/Lankaran

Prior to a few weekends ago (April 24 – 26), I imagined that southern Azerbaijan was nothing but a vast desert. Being my blonde self, I didn’t perform a simple Google search before the trip to see if I was correct. So when our bus lumbered its way over the bumpy two-way streets on our way to Lankaran, I was mesmerized by the richness of the landscape’s color. The Talysh Mountain range, which runs between Azerbaijan and Iran, slowly integrated itself into the landscape, becoming more prominent with each passing mile.

Speaking of Iran…

Iranian Border and Astara

Hayley by Iran

So happy to be by the Iranian border.

Iranian Border

Those mountains in the background are IN Iran!

We totally saw the Iranian border. F*ck yes.

Would you judge me if I admit that seeing the border was the main motivation for venturing to southern Azerbaijan (at least on my part), and that it’s one of the many reasons why I applied to be an ETA in this country? It’s inaccessible territory for most Americans, and to be *this* close to it was exhilerating. 

The taxi driver that we hired for the day didn’t really get it either. Ehmed was a funny guy, and was equally baffled by and impressed with us. He spoke in Russian to Madeline and Dana, and when they translated into English for me, I added a couple words in Azeri. If something was confusing, I would try to clarify in Azeri while they clarified in Russian.

This is not to say that I speak Azeri well. Definitely not. But I got the gist of situations, such as whenever Ehmed rolled down his window to ask for directions as he weaved through the calm streets of Astara, the town that leads to Iran. It went something like this: “Hey there, how’s it going? So…I have these Americans in my taxi, and they want to see the Iranian border. Where is that?”

Ugh, Ehmed, don’t advertise us!

But we made it just fine. And Ehmed’s excitement seemed to match ours because he accelerated toward the gate. “Ay Allah — dur, dur, DUR!!” I almost screamed. [“Oh my God — stop, stop, STOP!!”] We spent just a few minutes at the border before asking Ehmed to take us to a park next to the Caspian that was also close to the border.

It was lovely that day. This is facing north...

It was lovely that day. This is facing north…

And this is facing south toward Iran

And this is facing south toward Iran

Astara Caspian 3

Brand new seaside park

 

Astara Park

Astara Shrek

lol

Astara Caspian Park 3

To add excitement to Ehmed’s day, the group needed to use the restroom. Off he went, about 15 steps ahead of us, asking random people where the nearest facility was located. It was hilarious and excrutiating at the same time, “Hey there, how’s it going? So…I have these Americans and they need to use the bathroom. Where is that?”

Ugh, Ehmed — stop advertising us!

Yanar Bulaq and Istisu

Crisis averted, we drove back north to see a few more points of interest. Yanar Bulaq (literally “combustible spring” in English) is right off the side of the road, and free to enter (at least we weren’t told to pay anything).

It looks a little ghetto, but I promise the people are nice.

It looks a little ghetto, but I promise the people are nice.

As implied in Yanar Bulaq’s name, you can set the water on fire. It’s crazy. Ehmed saved the day again when he hopped into the taxi and rushed to find matches when none of us had a lighter. He hustled back through the rusty gate and whipped out a match:

Ehmed is wearing the checkered sweater.

Ehmed is wearing the checkered sweater.

Let there be light!!

Let there be light!!

Yanar Bulaq 4

We were told that drinking the water was “good for health reasons.” My mind jumped to gruesome images of my body bursting into flames after having a sip. Hahaha, is it, now? You couldn’t pay me to ingest any of that.

But I was willing to submerge parts of my body at our next stop: Istisu (literally “Hot water/springs”). Set off a ways in the Talysh hills, Istisu is a collection of natural hot springs that serve as a natural healing spa for tourists (Ehmed informed us that many Iranians come here every year). We only dipped our feet, but it felt oh-so-good and was oh-so-hot.

Our hut. You're only allowed to be in the water for about 15 minutes.

Our hut. You’re only allowed to be in the water for about 15 minutes.

But most of all, I enjoyed the views…

Talysh Pano

Talysh View

So green!

Lankaran

Now for the actual town. The events described above occurred on the second day of our trip. Our first day we spent in Lankaran after we arrived in the afternoon from Baku — a bus ride that took over 5 hours.

We stayed at Qızıl Tac Otel (Golden Crown Hotel), which we found thanks to our taxi driver who drove us from Lankaran’s Avtovağzal (central bus station) to the town’s mərkəzi (city center). We asked for the cheapest hotel in town, and he walked us to Qızıl Tac, leaving only after he negotiated a price for us: 10 manat per person per night. Sweet. It’s actually pretty nice; clean, safe, and located next to Lankaran’s largest park:

Main park, I'm 90% certain it's Heydar Aliev Park

Main park, I’m 90% certain it’s Heydar Aliev Park

Lankaran Park

Statue commemorating WWII.

Statue commemorating WWII.

Then we just meandered around.

It's a chill place

It’s a chill place

IMG_6314

Legend has it that Stalin was imprisoned in this tower. He escaped and sailed across the Caspian to safety.

Legend has it that Stalin was imprisoned in this tower. He escaped and sailed across the Caspian to safety.

Lankaran Stalin Prison

Lankaran is a tiny town, so we saw the main areas within a few hours. “How about we go to the beach? I want to see the water,” I insisted. Off we went, heading in the general direction of the Caspian…

Passed by some military bases of some sort. The guidebook mentioned these as "no-no places" but we accidentally walked by them.  :P

Passed by some military bases of some sort. The guidebook called these “no-no places” but we accidentally walked by them. 😛

Crossed the train tracks. I'll take this time to let you all know back home that every "Stop" sign I've seen in this country is in English. I don't know why.

Crossed the train tracks. I’ll take this time to let you all know back home that every “Stop” sign I’ve seen in this country is in English. I don’t know why.

It was challenging to find a road that led to the beach. We finally made it, but were discouraged at its condition:

Lankaran Caspian 1

You couldn't pay me to walk on this beach barefoot

You couldn’t pay me to walk on this beach barefoot

Lankaran Caspian 3

There is hope for Lankaran’s beach; we saw how nice Astara’s seaside walkway was the next day (in the pictures above). Azerbaijan is slowly developing its tourism industry outside of Baku, it will just take time.

Lankaran Train Tracks

Heading back to town

Lankaran Mosque

Mosque

Lankaran 20

 Are You Kidding Me?

There were a few moments during the trip that left us all in bewilderment. Blame it on cultural differences, language barriers, maybe the local quirks of people clashed with our quirks…whatever the reason, we experienced the following awkward interactions:

“You Are Too Noisy”

Okay friends, I hate talking badly about places and people, but I’ll make an exception for this restaurant, which is called “Titanic”:

Don't eat here!

Don’t eat here!

We tried this place out because it was raved about in the guidebook; supposedly they prepared the best levengi, a whole chicken stuffed with a walnutty herb paste. Especially tasty when paired with plov, or rice.

Long story short, we were ripped off. That’s what you get sometimes as young, single lady travellers. The chicken was small, and the rice was old. [Note: The next day we went to a different restaurant and ordered the same thing. It was MUCH better in terms of quality and for the price. That restaurant is called “Dalğa.”] The service at “Titanic” was also a little strange, like when we chatted as we waited downstairs for a taxi.

Waiter (walking over to our group): You are too noisy. Too noisy for the other guests.

Me: Sorry, but I am also a guest.

Waiter (after mumbling with another waiter): “Where are you from?”

Me (making a disgusted sound): No, I don’t think so — you can’t yell at me for being noisy one minute and then expect me to let you know where I’m from. [I’m usually sensitive and careful about my word choice when I talk in English to non-native speakers. But he was rude first so I did not care.]

Waiter (slowly blinking confused eyes): …I don’t understand.

Me: That’s fine, you don’t need to understand.

Just then music blasted from the kitchen downstairs. Like, it was WAY louder than our talking level, and much ruder to the other guests he referred to. Now it was our turn to be confused, “You said that WE were loud? This is VERY loud!” He smirked, “It is for you,” meaning that the music was to drown us out. Why I oughta….I wanted to lurch forward and strangle him.

But I didn’t. They did call us a taxi, which thankfully came a minute later, but which ended up being another strange interaction….

“Germany, NOOO!”

We established the fare with our driver and settled in the car (Note: Don’t pay more than a couple manat to get around Lankaran). It didn’t take long before he asked what languages we knew, where we were from, and why we’re in Azerbaijan. Like many, he was impressed with my friends’ knowledge of Russian and that they learned it in the States.

He made small talk in Russian, at one point commenting, “This car is a Mercedes; it’s from America.”

I pondered aloud, “I think Mercedes is a German brand…right? From Germany?”

His literal response was to yell half in English, half in Russian, “Germany NEYYYYYYYYYYT!!!!!!” [НЕЕЕЕЕТ/NOOOOOO]. It totally caught us off-guard, and all we could do was laugh at his outburst as he pouted. Sir, do you want me to pay you? THEN DON’T YELL AT ME. Truly bizarre, like when our hotel manager didn’t want to give us our passports…

What Passport?

The next morning we were on our way to Astara and the other places I talked about above. Since we were leaving the city, and going close to Iran, we wanted our passports. It’s not unusual for hotels to hold them for a night while they make copies of the front page for their records. But this manager treated it too casually and took his sweet time to make scans. When we asked him about our passports that second morning, he blew us off and made some crappy jokes in Russian.

There we stood in the office, anger simmering in each of us — at least in me. If you know me, you can imagine how annoyed I got by this dude. He beckoned us to sit, we all refused, but we weren’t getting anywhere with Russian or English. I stared down at him and summoned my brave side, “Pasaport, indi.” [Passport now.]

He looked up and sighed, grabbed our passports, and rushed out the hotel. He came back a few minutes later with the originals and scanned copies. I was happy to be reunited with my official form of identity, but was irked by his offer to drive us around that day for free. Ugh, seriously? You held my passport hostage and you tell bad jokes, there is no way in hell I’m going to spend a full day with you.

Despite all this, I had a good time in Lankaran. And I felt comfortable in the sense that I knew I could handle whatever life decided to throw my way, a feeling that I didn’t have during earlier travels in Azerbaijan. Of course, I have Dana and Madeline to thank since I survived off of their awesome Russian skills, and I hope that future ETAs will be able to bond over seeing the Iranian border and surviving weird social moments.

Until next time…  : )

#2 and #3

With just over a month left, things are winding down here in Azerbaijan in terms of my teaching responsibilities. That means I’ve had time to think, which also means an opportunity to see what I’ve forgotten to talk about on my blog.

I’ve been fortunate to travel fairly extensively throughout Azerbaijan (I’ll add a list of places with links to my posts about them below), and a couple of places got lost in the shuffle. So in this post I’ll share some photos and impressions of Gəncə and Sumqayit, the second and third largest cities in Azerbaijan, respectively.

First, let’s see where these cities are located. I’ll give you a hint: Gəncə is located north-west of the center of the country, and Sumqayit is located due north of Baku.

Gəncə (Ganja)

I spent two days in Gəncə back in January on the way home from Georgia (click here to see that post if you so desire). My friend’s aunt kindly hosted us and I stuffed myself with delicious homemade dishes. Besides eating, other highlights in Gəncə included…

Highlights

  • Learning some literary history. Two famous poets called Ganja their hometown in the 12th century: Nizami and Mahsati. Luckily, several of their works are available to us today. Nizami is most famous for Leyli və Mejnun, a love story similar to Romeo and Juliet (tragic death included). Mahsati was a pretty bad-ass woman for her time as she traveled extensively, had numerous love affairs, and purportedly was a fixture at the court of Sultan Sanjar. Most of her surviving works are quatrains.
  • Getting a nice dose of sunshine before returning to Baku.
  • I like Gəncə, I really do. The atmosphere is what I would imagine Baku’s to have been like before the modern oil boom. It’s a pretty chill place, and nice to stop over during a longer trip.

Photos

Sumqayit (Sumgayit/Sumgait)

Sumqayit is the home of fellow ETA Dana (who I’ve mentioned in numerous posts). I’ve visited Sumqayit a handful of times, and contrary to what other people say about it, it’s NOT some Detroit-esque, worthless city. It’s pleasant and reminds me of small midwestern towns in the U.S. In the last few years it’s undergone a LOT of recovery work because it’s famous for not-so-glamorous reasons…

Sumqayit Run-Down

  • There is a reason why people grimace whenever you mention Sumqayit…it was one of the main industrial hubs of the USSR, resulting in mad pollution. So yeah, maybe 10 to 20 years ago it was as run-down as Detroit currently is, but a lot of work has been done to improve that.
  • Many, many people commute between Sumqayit and Baku for work and school, in fact, several students of mine live in Sumqayit.
  • When the Peace Corps was active in Azerbaijan, Sumqayit was home to new volunteers during their training period.
  • Sumqayit’s first coffee shop opened up this last year, called London Coffee House. No website or anything for it, but it’s good and cheap!
  • It’s pretty easy to get to Sumqayit from Baku. Step #1: Get to 20 Yanvar metro. Step #2: Find the correct exit to catch a shared taxi to Sumqayit. You’ll know it’s the right one when about 6 taxi drivers crowd around you crowing at the tops of their lungs, “Sumqayit, Sumqayit! Bir manat — Sumqayit!!” Step #3: Expect to pay one manat for daytime travel; two or three manats for night time travel. Really, you shouldn’t pay more than two, but sometimes they’re jerks.
  • For more on life in Sumqayit and in case you’re sick of my blabbering, here is a link to Dana’s blog: “Salam Sumqayit”

Photos

Selling narlar (pomegranates) from the back of a car. Classic.

Selling narlar (pomegranates) from the back of a car. Classic.

Sumgayit 2

The famous Dove statue

The famous Dove statue

Sumqayit 's parks are fresh and impressive

Sumqayit’s parks are fresh and impressive

Walked through an outdoor theater

Walked through an outdoor theater

Walking on the beach. If only some money was dedicated to cleaning it up and taking care of it. It would be so much nicer...

Walking on the beach. If only some money was dedicated to cleaning it up and taking care of it. It would be so much nicer…

Sumgayit 7

Almost got hit by a car; nothing surprises me anymore!

Almost got hit by a car; nothing surprises me anymore!

So there you go, another little taste of Azerbaijan. I personally believe that a place is worth visiting one time, and if you happen to find yourself in Azerbaijan for any reason (study/research, work, tourism, etc.) and have the opportunity to see these cities, I suggest you go.

Until next time….  : )


My Travel in the Regions

 

Spring Break in Georgia

If I had to sum up my Novruz/Spring Break trip to Georgia in a handful of words, it would be something like this…

  • Mighty vistas
  • Spiritual beauty
  • Death by cows

Hopefully you’ll see why throughout the post. First, here are some logistics of the trip:

  • Who: Myself and two other Fulbright ETAs, all ladies.
  • The trip took place over Novruz week. Novruz is a major spring holiday in Azerbaijan and is also celebrated in Iran. We were gone the entire week, from March 21 through March 28/29.
  • We took an overnight bus from Baku to Tbilisi, 12 manat ($12 USD at the time) per ticket. It left at 9:30pm (there are a few departure time options), and we arrived in Tbilisi at about 6:30am. We spent roughly an hour at the border, which we arrived at around 4:00am.
  • To get back, we took the overnight train from Tbilisi to Baku. Price was about 60 lari, or about $30 USD. The border took longer than the bus, I want to say close to three hours.
  • Our itinerary: (20) Overnight bus from Baku to Tbilisi, (21) Tbilisi, (22) Tbilisi/Day trip to Kazbegi, (23) Kutaisi, (24) Kutaisi/Excursion to Gelati Monastery, (25 and 26) Batumi/Excursion to Batumi Nature Reserve, (27) Batumi/Travel to Tbilisi, (28) Tbilisi/Train to Baku, (29) Arrive in Baku afternoon. Basically, we were very, very busy!
  • Our main mode of transportation within Georgia was marshrutka, basically a little bus. It is useful to know Russian to travel this way (or at least have Russian-speaking friends to depend on, which I had).
  • Our hostels, which you can find on Booking.com: Old Town Hostel (Tbilisi), Bavaria Inn (Kutaisi), Friends’ Hostel (Tbilisi). In Batumi, we rented a little apartment. The cost was comparable to a hostel, and we really enjoyed having our own space to crash in.

Tbilisi – Round 2

Highlights from Tbilisi:

  • Taking in the city at a faster pace. I visited Tbilisi in January but didn’t get to see much. Besides the rain, it was great seeing Tbilisi again.
  • Georgian wine and chacha. Chacha is Georgia’s hard liquor of choice. According to the Peace Corps volunteers I chatted with, all of their homestay families make their own homemade/moonshine chacha. They also take one or two shots of the concoction in the morning “for health reasons.”
  • Getting a marriage proposal after enjoying said Georgian wine and chacha. I declined.
  • Randomly bumping into some fellow Georgian Fulbright ETAs who we hadn’t seen since the Pre-Departure Orientation in July. Loved talking with them and comparing experiences.

Tbilisi Pictures:

(If you want to see them in a larger size with descriptions, click on the first one for a slideshow)

Kazbegi – Death by Cows

I don’t know about you, but I have an ongoing list in my head entitled Things to Never Tell My Mother. “Death by cows in the Caucasus Mountains during Georgia spring break trip” was on it, partly because I felt so stupid for being as scared as I was. But now I can laugh at myself so I’m going to tell the entire internet my ridiculous story.

Gergeti church, perched atop of a little mountain peak, was the goal during our day trip to Kazbegi (for more information on Kazbegi, click here). Dana said the views were to die for, and the trek up and down the substantial hill would take just the right amount of time for an entertaining, semi-strenuous day hike. Perfect.

Spolier alert: We did not make it to the church. First, paths were not clearly marked. Second, the path we ended up taking was still covered with snow. And third, we almost died by cows.

Picture the three of us at the bottom of a big hill, right outside a little village. Our eyes scanned the surrounding landscape.”I think this is the hill we take…” someone said. “Yeah, this must be it — people keep turning around and coming back after a few minutes on the other hill,” another one concurred. We started heading up, and, to our dismay, it was much harder than it looked from afar.

“How is it this steep? It didn’t look this bad from the bottom of the hill,” one person commented. I paused, already breathless, “I know I’m out of shape — but I’m blaming the elevation.” “Yesterday’s chacha isn’t helping us either…” the third added. “Awww, look, a cow!” All eyes looked straight ahead and spotted a handful of cows beginning their decline from a grazing area. We watched them slip and slide while we caught our breath, panic suddenly settling in as more cows appeared and dotted the hillside.

There we stood, balanced precariously on mud and slabs of gray sheet rock, desperately trying to avoid the onslaught of cows lumbering down the steep hill. Their slim ankles and bony knees hardly looked fit enough to handle their girth, and I imagined their joints buckling and heaving them down the hill on top of us.

But become deadly killers whilst slipping down muddy, steep hills.

Petrifying…

It is SO hard to move quickly with precarious footing at a steep incline as panic surges through your body. We shuffled over to the left, half the cows headed in that direction. We moved over more to get to grass, hoping for better footing. Apparently the cows were looking for that too.

I know, deep down, that cows are harmless creatures. The animal must be pretty passive and relaxed to allow a human to collect milk from it everyday, and it was one of the first domesticated animals in human history. But we definitely fed the fire of fear as we each flipped out. “Is that….is that a male cow?!” “What if they run and attack us??!!” “There’s MORE coming — it will never end…!!” “I DON’T WANT TO DIE IN THE CAUCASUS MOUNTAINS!!!”

We scurried down the hill, absolutely scared to death (picture the characters in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Run away! Run away!”). We reconvened and tried to find our sanity, all the while nervously glaring at the cows as they meandered past us toward the village. We waited until we were sure no more cows would come, and we gave the hill a second try. We made it much further, but, as I mentioned earlier, still failed.

*Sigh* Sooooo ridiculous. But if you can’t laugh at yourself…

Other highlights from our Kazbegi day:

  • Being called “evil and beautiful” by a (very, very) drunk man at the restaurant. I took it as a compliment; I don’t mind being a little evil and being called out on it.
  • Witnessing the aftermath of a minor car crash in the mountains. The treacherous 1-lane roads are just begging for accidents. And really, it did not surprise me — when you drive like a lunatic in the mountains, you’re in a world of hurt. What was so amusing was the Caucasus-style problem solving process between the two parties. About 25 men flocked around the scene, smoking and debating, taking sides as to who was not at fault for the accident. I was half-expecting someone to bring out tea. Luckily a police officer came along after about 20 minutes and we were able to move again.

Kazbegi Pictures:

Charming Kutaisi

From Tbilisi we ventured to the middle of Georgia and stayed in Kutaisi for a night.

Kutaisi Highlights:

  • Meeting up with Kutaisi’s ETA, Alex, and visiting his class. Working with students mid-trip was refreshing for us all.
  • Touring Gelati Monastery, a UNESCO site (separate photo album below).
  • Immediately feeling relaxed and at-home in this charming city.
  • Our hostel, Hostel Bavaria, was the most charming thing ever. For an extra 2 lari, they will make you breakfast and it is delicious.
  • Randomly meeting a former Peace Corps volunteer during a walk. He fell in love with Georgia during his service, and splits his time equally between the States and Kutaisi.
  • Buying fruit leather from a cute lady in a bazaar and impressing her when I knew the Azeri word for persimmon, “xurma.” Apparently they’re also called “xurma” in Georgia.

Kutaisi Pictures:

Gelati Monastery Pictures

A 20-minute taxi ride away from Kutaisi is Gelati Monastery. This is one of my personal favorites out of the whole trip. Since this post is forever long anyway, here is a link that describes more history of the Bagrati and Gelati structures: UNESCO website – Bagrati and Gelati.

Off Season in Batumi

Next phase of the trip: Batumi, a city right on the Black Sea coast. I wasn’t able to visit the Black Sea during my semester abroad in Turkey, so I was happy to see it in Georgia.

In the summer, Batumi is THE place to be — full of tourists, lots of fun. In March, spring had just arrived so although it was occasionally chilly, it was still enjoyable. It actually reminded me of the off-season back home in West Michigan, an area overflowing with tourists in the summer, and still as still can be in the winter.

Highlights from Batumi:

  • Spending time with Batumi’s lovely Fulbright ETA, Jessie.
  • Trying out the most charming local coffee shop I’ve ever seen. Owned by a Ukrainian couple, Choco Latte is affordable and delicious (pics in the slideshow).
  •  I convinced myself that the elevator of our apartment was psychotic and wanted to kill us. The fact that its doors slammed into one of us whenever we used it convinced me of this.
  • Spending an afternoon at the Batumi Botanical Garden. Fantastic views of the Black Sea, diverse plant life, and nicely maintained paths make this a must-see attraction. (Photos in album below.)
  • The marshrutka ride from Kutaisi to Batumi — actually, all of the marshrutka rides were surprisingly pleasant.

And there you have it, an entire week of travel in ONE post. Crazy. If you learned anything, I hope it’s this: Out of the three countries that make up the Southern Caucasus, Georgia is the most accessible since it is developing a pretty substantial backpacker/tourist industry. Tbilisi is awesome, but that’s just a taste of Georgia. Much of Georgia’s beauty lies in the smaller towns and cities nestled between ragged cliffs and hills.  Venture out and experience the greater Caucasus…take in the mighty vistas, appreciate the spirituality of the region…

And try not to get killed by cows.

Until next time…  😉

The Man of the Hour

Rarely a day goes by that I don’t see this gentleman’s image hung on a wall, perched on a table, or gracing the side of a building or billboard:

Heydar Aliyev 1

Friends and family back home, if you don’t know who this is, get ready for a little lesson in Azerbaijani political history. This is Heydər Əliyev, the first stable president of independent Azerbaijan. (His name is commonly spelled like this in our alphabet: Heydar Aliyev.)  I knew about Mr. Əliyev before I arrived in Azerbaijan, thanks to the book Azerbaijan Diary by American reporter and academic Thomas Goltz. The book chronicles Goltz’s time in Azerbaijan as the USSR crumbled (early 1990s), and explains in great detail the power struggle amongst Baku’s political elite. It’s actually really confusing, not because Goltz is a bad writer (definitely not), but because he’s writing about messy history: the process a former USSR republic faced as it learned how to become an independent country in the modern age. Yikes.

Now, I must say, I would NOT have wanted to be a major power player in that situation. Can you imagine starting an independent country…sorting the logitics of borders, an army, your resources, laws, the safety of millions of people, all while watching your own back as factions develop and alliances constantly shift?

Hell no. No, thank you.

Anyway, one man came up repeatedly in Goltz’s narrative, the guy I mentioned earlier…

Heydər Əliyev as seen in a conference room.

Heydər Əliyev as seen in a conference room.

Mr. Əliyev was actually born in Naxçıvan (or, Nakhchivan), an autonomous republic of Azerbaijan sandwiched firmly between Armenia and Iran. Naxçıvan also shares a teeny tiny border with Turkey, something like 4 miles in length:

1208azerbaijan_map_200w

The only way to get to Nakhchivan from mainland Azerbaijan is by plane. Whenever Nakhchivan comes up in conversation, I’m told that the people there talk “very, very fast.” (Photo from http://gisandscience.com/)

Əliyev was a household name prior to independence, being a key leader within the Soviet system. This meant that when the Soviet Union ceased to be, he had powerful friends but also plenty of enemies in Baku. He whisked himself away between Moscow and Naxçıvan in self-imposed exhile and layed low for a few years. It proved to be a smart move, as he smoothly transitioned into the role of president in 1993 at the behest of the populace, and maintained the office until his death in 2003. He actually died in Cleveland, OH while undergoing care for heart issues.

Upon arriving in Baku, I’ve been struck by how prevalent his image is throughout the city. It reminds me of Atatürk in Turkey, whose face I saw in paintings hung in offices and recital halls, and banners draped over the sides of buildings:

In case you don't know: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is a revolutionary hero and symbol of progressive modernism in Turkey. Here is a short biography for more info: http://www.ataturk.com/ Photo credit: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/youth-ataturk-day-celebrated-in-turkey.aspx?pageID=449&nID=47179&NewsCatID=341

In case you don’t know: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is a revolutionary hero and symbol of progressive modernism in Turkey. Here is a short biography for more info: http://www.ataturk.com/
Photo credit: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/youth-ataturk-day-celebrated-in-turkey.aspx?pageID=449&nID=47179&NewsCatID=341

And as I’ve traveled, I’ve noted Əliyev’s face and name on a regular basis, even in the most remote mountain towns and villages deep in the hinterlands. Below are just a handful of examples:

Here he is in the courtyard of my university.

Here he is in the courtyard of my university.

Greeting those who arrive in the town of Gəncə.

Greeting those who arrive in the town of Gəncə.

Located in a park in Quba.

Located in a park in Quba.

In a research library of a museum.

In a research library of a museum.

There's even a bust of him in Tbilisi, Georgia!

There’s even a bust of him in Tbilisi, Georgia!

It’s hard to equate this with anything in American culture…but think of a famous political and military figure who served a pivotal role in American history, someone who set many standards for not only presidential behavior, but for citizen behavior. George Washington is an easy example. Now imagine if portraits of George Washington were displayed everywhere, and if a few major streets in every city were called “George Washington Street,” and if a significant number of public theaters, halls, cultural centers, parks, universities, and charitable organizations were named after the founding father.

Yes, it’s a lot. It’s impossible to go through a day without hearing, reading, or seeing his name or face in some form or another.

I mentioned earlier that Heydər passed away in 2003; so who is president of Azerbaijan now?

This fellow, Ilham Əliyev.

This fellow, Ilham Əliyev.

Mr. Ilham Əliyev, his son, became president immediately after and it looks as though he’ll remain for a while longer. Political “royalty” (so to speak) isn’t unknown in American political culture; the Bush’s and Clinton’s are prime examples, the Kennedy’s and Adams’ even earlier.

Father and son.

Father and son.

Yet it’s an awkward prospect, especially in a young country practicing democracy for the first time. But, maybe it’s good to have a singular leader/family for a sense of consistency, especially in as volatile a region as the Caucasus. On the other hand, there are also benefits of bringing in new blood to diversify the political scene. I argue that it is too soon to speculate which is better for the situation; this will have to be the work of historians and political scientists down the road.

In the meantime, I’m still getting used to running into Mr. Əliyev on a daily basis. Coming from an entirely different cultural background, I’ll admit that it’s a little strange. But I gotta hand it to him, he was a man who lived through tumultuous times and got Azerbaijan on its feet. Anyone who serves his or her country like that deserves to be “the man of the hour” for many hours.

Until next time…  (:


Additional links:

Official Website of Heydar Əliyev, Biography

News article dated from December, 2003

News article dated from December, 2014

 

Winter Trip in the Regions Part II: Xınalıq and Laza

Aside from getting lost and acting as pawns in Fuad’s matchmaking games (as described in Part I), Dana and I were intent on visiting two remote villages, so remote that no one I talked to in Baku had been there, or really even thought about them as destinations worth noting. “You are seeing more of Azerbaijan than me, and I’ve lived here all my life!” was the common statement. How ridiculous, I thought, explore your own country! However, I must reprimand myself — how many places in MY country — even home state — have I failed to see thus far? Countless.

I alluded in Part I that the only way to get to these villages is by hiring an experienced driver. Some taxis, I think, can take you but they probably prefer doing that in warmer months. We did this in January. So we were much relieved when Fuad used his connections to get us a driver, a kind gentleman who lived in Xınalıq. We had him for both day trips, which cost about 40 manat per day (20 manat per person). We trucked around in this Soviet-era beauty:

The elegant Lada Niva.

The elegant Lada Niva.

Xınalıq

I feel the only way for you to know how Xınalıq is pronounced is to hear it. So next time you see me, remind me about “that one remote Azerbaijani village.” Basically, the “X” is a sound like you’re clearing the back of your throat. The “ı” is NOT an “i.” The ‘dotless i’ has a sound like you’re being punched in the stomach, a forceful “uh.” Finally, the “q” has a hard “g” sound, as in “got.” Now, have fun piecing that all together!  (;

The drive up was fascinating (although I’m fascinated by almost anything) as we inched upward through the Caucasus Mountains:

Drive 1

Our guide offered to stop occasionally for pictures. He just wanted cigarette breaks, but I wasn’t complaining.

 

Drive 2

Hard to see, but note the white/light blue specks. Those are frozen waterfalls.

Hard to see, but note the white/light blue specks. Those are frozen waterfalls.

Drive 4
I’ll admit that we weren’t in Xınalıq at its prettiest…middle of winter, no fresh vegetation, a bit stark. But it was business as usual for the people living there. Kids were leaving school, the men and women were hard at work maintaining the household. We did get a few perplexed glances, Why are you here now? Come back in April or something. Oh well!

I’ll also mention that our driver took us to his home (undoubtedly built from the ground up with his own hands) where his family hosted us for tea. Himself, his wife, and his mother beamed at us with rosy cheeks while I clumsily thanked them in Azeri. I swear, it was the best tea I’ve had here (and I rarely have bad tea experiences in this country); maybe it was the water?? Also loved it when they talked to each other in their own language. I appreciate when people recognize that America has great diversity amongst its languages and cultures, but we forget that diversity exists everywhere — including the small Caucasus countries.

Village and Mountain Scenery

Since Xınalıq is located at one of the highest elevations in Azerbaijan, the views were stunning, despite the bleak weather that day…

Xiniliq 1

It was also interesting to get a small taste of village life.

Xiniliq 2

Xiniliq 3

Xiiniliq 4

Xiniliq 5

Xiniliq Museum

Xınalıq’s local museum. The sign, interestingly enough, was in Azeri and English.

Xiniliq 6

Xiniliq 7

Xiniliq 8

Xiniliq 9
Me in Xiniliq

Captivated by this frozen waterfall. Also concerned about how to get around it...

Captivated by this frozen waterfall. Also concerned about how to get around it…

But we got around it okay...until some school boys started throwing rocks at us. Boys will be boys everywhere!

But we got around it okay…until some school boys started throwing rocks at us. Boys will be boys everywhere!

Details

Every house was carefully pieced together with materials found in the area, so no wood. The occasional glass window, a checkered wall panel, or bright splash of color certainly caught my attention:

Xiniliq Home

Xiniliq Window

Xiniliq Window 2

Xiniliq Bridge

Retaining wall

Retaining wall

Xiniliq Colors

Xiniliq Wall 2

Xiniliq Car Hood

This is their fuel: cattle dung shaped into bricks. Talk about completely self-reliant and not wasting a thing!

This is their fuel: cattle dung shaped into bricks. Talk about completely self-reliant and not wasting a thing!

Xiniliq Paint

Xiniliq Star

Managed to satisfy my door obsession here too!

Managed to satisfy my door obsession here too!

And all of a sudden, a pop of green.

And all of a sudden, a pop of green.

Laza

“I have never heard of this ‘Laza’ village, Hayley. Are you sure that is a real place?” I insist that it is and show the unbeliever this picture:

Laza Market

A market…with the name on it!

But for people in Baku, that’s not good enough proof. Surely I must have been somewhere else, surely I must be confused. Well I’m going to stick to my guns and insist that I visited Laza.

For this day trip we had the same driver plus his brother. He must have tagged along for moral support, it was quite snowy and disorienting. We drove past Shahdağ resort, a ski resort high in the mountains. Actually, we stopped there with the intention of going no further. Dana and I looked at each other, This is not the village… They parked the car and our driver’s brother opened my door but I didn’t budge. I imagined what I would say in a similar situation back home in English, “Excuse you, do you think I’m some idiot? I see that this is a tourist trap. I am not paying you to take me to a ski resort, sir, I want to go see the village. Take me there at once!” Unfortunately I couldn’t do that. I searched for words…

“Laza deyil (This is not Laza),” I calmly said. He made some comment that I couldn’t make out.

I pulled up Google maps on my phone and pointed to Laza, “Laza kend isteyirem (I want Laza village).”

A few minutes later we were back on the treacherous path, barreling over mounds of snow. I can’t believe that worked! Although we did come close to death a few times…Snow + Mountain Roads – Guard Rails = Possible Demise.

But, my God, we made it! We hopped out of the vehicle on slightly wobbly legs and became more dazed by the intensity and volume of the white snow.

Laza 1

It's been a while since I'd seen this much snow. So I had a tinge of culture shock.

It’s been a while since I’d seen this much snow. So I had a tinge of culture shock.

Laza 3

Laza 4

Laza 5

Of course, happy to be there.  (:

Of course, happy to be there. (:

Except when I fell because of the ice...which I did about 6 times.  :P

Except when I fell because of the ice…which I did about 10 times. 😛

Animal Friends

A highlight of visiting Laza was seeing a bit of the mountain pastoral lifestyle. We saw sheep and horses being taken to water…

Sheep!!!!

Sheep!!!!

Cows chilling…

Laza CowsAnd a puppy that freaking loved me…

I’m not a dog person, but my-oh-my, this playful puppy melted my heart.

I’m not a dog person, but my-oh-my, this playful puppy melted my heart.

Bleak but Beautiful Landscape

We all know how bleak and tiresome life seems as we struggle through endless winter. But seeing winter in a different place, away from Baku, really enlivened it for me. Laza is beautiful even in January…

Laza Scenery 1

Laza Scenery 2

Laza Scenery 3

Laza Scenery 4

Laza Scenery 5We experienced another round of unconditional hospitality that afternoon. After getting lost (no surprise there) and managing to ask where the market was located, we stumbled through the snow to meet our drivers about 15 minutes past our agreed-upon time. A group of men were around the car, probably asking why they made the treacherous journey into the village. I imagine the reply was something along the lines of, “You see, we have these two crazy American girls who insisted we come to the village — the ski complex wasn’t good enough!” They quieted down when they saw Dana and I approaching.

I was winded from the elevation, wet from falling, and I can only imagine how red my cheeks were…but I attempted a hearty “Salam!” A few of them chuckled. “Siz necesiniz? (How is everyone?)” They were thrilled I could ask and the group hummed with approval. One gentleman invited us to his home for lunch and tea. Oh yes…that sounds AWESOME. It turns out he owns and operates a homestay/B&B-type facility and has hosted tourists from all over the world. Better yet, he’s mentioned in Dana’s guidebook.

After warming up with homemade soup, plov (a local rice dish), and especially-tasty tea (it must be the water…), we were back on the road. Our host refused any payment for lunch, insisting that it was his family’s pleasure to have us. It was so touching that we really want to go back this spring, not only to see Laza again but to support his business.

In conclusion, despite all the general craziness, language barriers, and excruciatingly awkward blind date, I wouldn’t trade that weekend for anything. I love Baku and appreciate all it has to offer, but if you ever make it to Azerbaijan, I really encourage you to get to the regions. It takes some gumption to figure out the logistics, but the regions are the heart of country.

Until next time…  (:

PS: Can you believe I’m here for only two-and-a-half more months??

Winter Trip in the Regions Part I: Quba

Good God, Hayley, another post that begins with “Part I”? You bet! A week after I returned from Hong Kong (described at great length in these posts: Part I and Part II), I squeezed in another trip before the start of spring semester. I went to Quba (pronounced, “goo-BAH”), Xınalıq (I’ll talk about the pronunciation of this next time), and Laza, a few towns in north-eastern Azerbaijan with a fellow Fulbrighter and regular travel buddy, the fabulous Dana.

I call her fabulous for a few reasons: 1) She planned the whole trip while I was gone (itinerary, hotel options, the logistics of getting there, etc.); and 2) We relied on her Russian skills way more than we anticipated, since my Azeri ones are inconveniently basic. Asking for directions, talking with our guides, and handling our somewhat crazy hotel manager usually demanded Russian. When we couldn’t use Russian, we used my Azeri. Therefore, if you venture to this part of Azerbaijan (or any part outside of Baku), it is extremely helpful to know Russian and/or Azeri — even basics.

Some Logistics

There are a few options to get around the regions in Azerbaijan, the most common are taxis and buses. We decided to take a bus to Quba and grabbed a taxi on our return home.

The Avtovağzal (Central Station) in Baku is not the easiest to get to. We took the metro to 20 Yanvar, then a bus to Avtoğazal. An endless supply of taxis are on the premise, drivers shouting names of towns, “Quba!” “Şeki!” “Gəncə!” We passed them into the huge bus station. We tried to navigate our way around but ended up having to ask where to purchase tickets. (Hint: they’re not in an obvious place. The counters are on the lower level behind a cafeteria.) We looked at the lists taped by each window for Quba, and finally found one. For our ticket there, it cost some obscure amount like 2.36 manat (~$3 USD at the time). We hustled up a few flights of stairs to catch our 10:30am ride, and, after much confusion, found our bus.

It seemed that we off set a delicate gender balance. We started to sit in one section but the driver waved us toward the very back corner. Okay, Mr. Bossy. After everyone settled, I saw a pattern: the other women were located in the front. Since Dana and were latecomers, we had to go in the back. On similar bus travel in Turkey (i.e. long-distance in which you purchase a ticket), a man and woman cannot sit next to each other unless they are related or married. Turns out Azerbaijan has a similar policy. If you find yourself in a similar situation, when in doubt, just do as you are told!

Our sweet ride. A little bumpy, but not entirely unpleasant.

Our sweet ride. A little bumpy, but not entirely unpleasant.

Second logistical detail: our hotel. Quba has a hotel as we think of one back home (called “Rixos Hotel”), but we can’t afford that. We settled on one that was more of a hostel…turned out it wasn’t in business (or something, the guy was a little strange). After a frantic online search, we found another one called Otel Oskar (Oskar Hotel):

Little markets and shops on the lower level, the hostel/hotel rooms are on the second. We got a double room with our own bathroom for 30 manat a night (15 manat per person). If you have other international travel/hostel experience, you’ll be happy at Oskar.

Little markets and shops on the lower level, the hostel/hotel rooms are on the second. We got a double room with our own bathroom for 30 manat a night (15 manat per person). If you have other international travel/hostel experience, you’ll be happy at Oskar.

Wandering Travelers

After we figured out Baku’s Avtovağzal and managed to find the right bus, we arrived in Quba after a two-hour bus ride. We were dropped off at a nice bus station. Naturally, we had no clue where we were in relation to the map in the guide book.

Looks new...but where are we?!

Looks new…but where are we?!

Friends, heed my advice: if you are dropped off here, you are a few miles from Quba’s merkezi (city center). Make sure your destination is written down and grab a taxi for a few manat.

But we didn’t know this. We started wandering. Maybe we’ll find a mosque or some sort of landmark that we can find on the map to enlighten us? Nothing. In the end, we concluded that the bus took us to a newer bus station that was built after the book was published. The book indicated that the only central bus station in Quba was located in the middle of many things, but all we saw was open space:

Quba 1

It’s definitely beautiful, but we’re definitely lost.

It’s definitely beautiful, but we’re definitely lost.

Wandering....

Wandering….

Quba 4

Luckily Quba is a pleasant town to get lost in.

We walked for a good hour before we hit the city center, and then wandered for another hour or so before we found Otel Oskar, which I described above.

Quba

We figured out the hotel room, dealt with the hotel manager (more about that at the end of this post), and headed out for more exploring. We timed this trip well, our arrival day was fair and sunny, and the following two days were rainy/snowy in Quba (this was in mid/late January).

Quba 5

Quba 7

Quba 8

Quba 9

Yes, a purple door.

Yes, a purple door.

Quba 11

Quba 12Quba 13Quba 14

Quba 15

Quba 16

Quba 17

Check out the blue accent color!

Check out the blue accent color!

Quba 19

Quba 20

All of the rain gutters had embellishments similar to this one.

All of the rain gutters had embellishments similar to this one.

Quba 21

I asked Dana if we could venture inside. She declined.

I asked Dana if we could venture inside. She declined.

The guidebook called this the “Beehive” or something, I think it’s a traditional hamam or public bath house.

The guidebook called this the “Beehive” or something, I think it’s a traditional hamam or public bath house.

Looking out toward the Old Jewish Town

Looking out toward the Old Jewish Town

Quba 25

That is one robust woman. Gotta love Soviet-era athletic statues!

That is one robust woman. Gotta love Soviet-era athletic statues!

Quba 27

Quba 28

Quba 29

The houses in this part were huge.

The houses in this part were huge.

Balconies became my new obsession in Quba

Balconies became my new obsession in Quba

Quba 32

Quba 33

Quba 34

Quba 35

Quba 36

Think I’ll flip this house someday...

Think I’ll flip this house someday…

We walked through the Jewish quarter of Quba, which is home to the largest Jewish community in Azerbaijan.

We walked through the Jewish quarter of Quba, which is home to the largest Jewish community in Azerbaijan.

Quba 39

Creepiest hamam sign ever.

Creepiest hamam sign ever.

Quba 41

All-in-all it’s a pleasant city. I could see myself as a Peace Corps volunteer here.

All-in-all it’s a pleasant city. I could see myself as a Peace Corps volunteer here.

It’s Not a Proper Vacation without Some Crazy Characters

I’ve mentioned that we had to “handle” or “deal with” our hotel manager; it’s because he was a handful. I can’t remember his name, but for the sake of the story I’ll call him Fuad. Since I can’t communicate much beyond greetings and asking for directions in Azeri, Dana had to do most of the communication, which actually made Fuad happy because he didn’t have the chance to speak Russian regularly. What also made him happy was insisting we sit in the office to drink tea and chat, probably so that he could show off the two American blondes to whoever visited him. And Fuad was a busy guy, so we met many people. In classic Azerbaijani-style hospitality, he made sure to let us know that we could ask him and the other workers for anything whenever we wanted. To illustrate this, he bellowed a name, “Ali!!”

A boy, maybe twelve years old, scrambled up the stairs into the office. “This boy can get you tea whenever you want it — he is your tea boy.” Our…our tea boy? I almost lost my composure and suppressed my giggles. Then Fuad scolded me because I was drinking my tea too slowly; wasn’t I aware that drinking cold tea is bad for my health?

But tea boy was just the start. Fuad was SO hospitable and kind, he wanted to play matchmaker…or something. “Are you married?” he asked sometime our first day. We have nothing to hide, so we told the truth: Nope, not married. He asked our ages. “Yirmi dört (twenty-four),” I answered, happy that I could contribute two words to the conversation. Should we have had more tact? Perhaps, but it was hard to follow his wandering rabbit trails, and he dropped those inquiries in the middle of a rant. Plus, he coordinated our rides into Xınılıq and Laza, remote mountain villages impossible to get to without an experienced driver. Our whole trip depended on him!

So when two tax inspectors came to the office during our second night there, we went along with the flow, perfectly used to the drama that hovered around Fuad. During our second or third cup of tea we were informed that the tax inspectors wanted to treat us to dinner. What? When did this exchange happen?

Basically, we were set up, and of course I was very unhappy about this. Dana was too. But, to guarantee that we had a ride for our village trip the next day, we figured we had to be kind. So we grimaced through dinner with these two tax guys who spoke no English or Russian (even though one of them affirmed that he spoke English when I asked him). They actually invited a third friend a bit later because “he speaks English well.” He spoke it okay, and he also reprimanded me at one point for dropping the f-bomb as I quietly conversed with Dana.

“That…that is a bad word,” he said, looking very disturbed that such an utterance could come forth from a lady’s mouth.

“Which word? F*cking? Yes, yes it is,” I nodded in agreement before taking a swig of sparkling water. Why can’t this be something stronger? I was over it at that point, and angry at myself for getting into such an awkward situation. Ugh, kill me.

But we made it through, and I guess an awkward dinner was worth the villages that we saw, which I’ll describe in my next post.

Until next time… (:

Azerbaijan State Economic University

ASEU Sign

Not to make anyone jealous, but I think I have one of the best schools any Fulbright ETA can ask for. First, just look at it:

Walking on the perimeter, this is the front of the Main Building, right by all the fun things in Baku.

Walking on the perimeter, this is the front of the Main Building, right by all the fun things in Baku.

Courtyard during an assembly on the first day of classes.

Courtyard during an assembly on the first day of classes.

ASEU 2

 

ASEU 13

ASEU 7

 

ASEU actually has three or four campuses throughout the city. This is one of them.

ASEU actually has three or four campuses throughout the city. This is one of them.

 

An auditorium in the Main Building

An auditorium in the Main Building

Azerbaijan State Economic University (ASEU) has become like a second home, largely because I have amazing colleagues and my own work space in the International Relations Office (IRO).

America and Azerbaijan

As you can see, Azerbaijan and the USA have a close, friendly relationship (:

 

Unlike professors at any American university, teachers here are rarely guaranteed personal work space. There are department offices, but that’s where everyone hangs out for tea, to chat, and meet with students. It’s hard to concentrate in such an environment, so many teachers I know prepare their lessons at home. I, on the other hand, am extremely fortunate: Not only do I have space, but I have my own computer — not kidding. I can use the office printer too, a luxury. I can be productive, and have some division between ‘work’ and ‘home,’ almost like a real adult.

Yet I end up taking my work to-do list home most evenings. I’m regularly interrupted, but I don’t mind. I’m always amazed when my students visit. Wow, they’re stopping by to say ‘hi,’ I feel like a real teacher! Then I give them Russian candy, because what better way can I show my gratitude except through a sweet? Impromptu Azeri language lessons occur between me and colleagues regularly, and I hear the occasional request to proofread a letter or edit a blurb.

And since I’m in the IRO, students approach my desk and ask in Azeri or Russian if so-and-so is here, or if I can tell them about Erasmus/study abroad programs. “Muslim Müəllim is out now, but he’ll be back in a few minutes,” or, “The person you want is Afət and she is at lunch, but she’ll return before the end of the hour.” Of course I answer in English, my Russian is non-existant and my Azeri is nothing to celebrate. I also do it to see their reactions, sometimes baffled and amused, sometimes that classic deer-in-the-headlights look. I like being someone’s unexpected encounter for the day.

Anyway, back to the tour. If you’re like me, maybe you’ve noticed that the university building butts right up to this big stone wall.

Just like that.

Just like that.

And that.

And that.

That stone wall straight ahead represents the original boundary of İçərişəhər, or, the Old City (which I’ve talked about with plenty of pictures in this post and this one); some parts are reconstructed or older than others, but it is impressive. ASEU and several other Russian-inspired (i.e. pre-Soviet) architectural beauties line the main street, completely blocking the Old City walls. It was something I wondered about in the back of my mind, but I assumed it was the result of bad city planning.

It was a stupid assumption. My colleague indicated the wall one afternoon as we walked from the canteen to the office. She explained that, at some point, the Russians demanded that Old City’s walls be torn down to 1) make way for newer construction, and 2) erase medieval Baku/Azerbaijani history. The suggestion was made instead to construct new buildings right in front of the walls, enough to block idle gazes from noticing them, but without completely destroying valuable history. And that is exactly what happened:

Block the walls...block them!

Block the walls…block them!

Wall 2

Oil money enabled locals to construct too, such as this building, “Ismailliya” by I.K. Ploşko in 1913.

 

Wall 3

Old City — what Old City? Look at the fountain!

 

This perfectly demonstrates the indecisive Russification policy I’ve read about. The Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union, wavered between two opinions as it dealt with Azerbaijan and its other territories: Should non-Russians be forced to abandon their languages and histories to identify only with Russia’s? Or should some allowances of cultural autonomy be practiced?

So the Old City, a medieval-era symbol of Azeri power and source of ethnic pride, was forced to fade into the background while other buildings, such as ASEU, were constructed at the forefront. That’s good enough for a society struggling to maintain its identity in the face of a colonizer. It’s that option or have your history be decimated. (And some back home have told me that “history doesn’t matter.” Hm. This should give you something to think about…)

Another factoid about ASEU’s main building: it was built as a school for girls, funded by oil millionaire Musa Naghiyev. It was the first school for women in the area, in the mid- to late-1800s, just after Baku’s economy boomed from the first wave of foreign investment. I asked what the girls were taught, and it sounds like a combination of home and practical skills like reading and writing. For some reason, I thought about those young women multiple times in the week leading up to the start of the spring semester. I imagined their laughter and voices echoing in the cavernous, chilly hallways, maybe because it seemed too quiet without the intermittent chatter of teenagers.

So quiet.

So quiet.

Barren.

Barren.

The inspirational quotes were added over winter break.

The inspirational quotes were added over winter break. I can translate one for you. “Hər gün kitab oxuyun” = Read a book everyday.

ASEU Stairs 2

And here’s another translation: “Hər zaman gözəl sözlər danışın” = Always speak beautiful (kind) words.

 

But now young voices bellow down the halls regularly, and several of them are greetings aimed my way, “Hello, Hayley!” I encourage them to use my first name, I figure it’s good for them to practice a different name since I have to practice all of theirs…such as Günay, Əntigə, Fuad, Toğrul, Faik, and Ceyhuna. But I’ll admit that my heart thrills a bit when I’m called teacher. “Hello, teacher, how are you?” “Thank you for today’s lesson, teacher, we enjoyed it very much.” “What will we talk about today, teacher?” “Teacher, how long will you stay in Azerbaijan?”

I know it’s a simple title, but Jesus was called teacher (rabbi) in the Biblical New Testament by several who addressed him. Actually, if I’m not mistaken, several pioneers of religious movements from Buddha to Muhammad were viewed and recorded as teachers. I like sharing such a title with those great people.

Although the title is just about all we have in common. I teach conversational English to several groups of students that meet with me once a week. Those groups of students are also fluid, meaning that I see new faces weekly, others drop out forever, and some attend when they feel like it (like stopping by for the last half of class). It’s…interesting…definitely different from my personal university experience…and it constantly tries my patience. Taking that into consideration, and the fact that I come across a rather wide range of English skill (“Intermediate” is a very broad category and somewhat deceiving), I don’t take it upon myself to teach them brand new grammatical structures or introduce lists of vocabulary — that’s what their formal curriculum covers. Instead, I frame a discussion or class around a theme or activity, and give them the chance to use the English they already know. I like having that freedom, and I think they appreciate the change of pace.

I work in two different conference rooms. This one is on the top floor in the Honors section.

I work in two different conference rooms. This one is on the top floor in the Honors section.

And this one is right next to the IRO, on the lowest level. I hold my conversation clubs here.

And this one is right next to the IRO, on the lowest level. I hold my conversation clubs here.

There you have it, a little taste of ASEU. When my friend Esther visited, I made sure to give her a tour. “This is the kind of place I can see you working,” she said.

I daresay it is a good fit.

Until next time… (:

Cultural Chaos

Situation #1

“You are a very bad girl.”

Excuse you? I wanted to retort some smart, biting comment. I also had the urge to smack the speaker. Hayley — stop, have patience…

“How is that bad? Staying out late with friends was what everyone did in high school. You can’t do anything else in a small town. It’s normal…” I faltered to justify my past actions, which weren’t bad in any shape or form.

She continued, “All good girls should be back home by 10 at night.” My jaw dropped.

Obviously, I was annoyed during that conversation; I would die under that kind of cultural curfew. However, it did open my eyes to something: I don’t see many women out past 10pm in Baku, regardless of the day of the week or part of the city I happen to be in. And now I know why: married or unmarried; single or with a family; old or young…good girls are at home.

Situation #2

“It’s high time you got married.”

High time, huh? Right, because my drop-dead gorgeous looks will quickly pass by, like dust in the wind. Heaven forbid a 24-year old young lady should remain happily single. Better find a man now — snag one before it’s too late! Hayley — stop, have patience…

It’s the haughty and somewhat bossy tone that sets me over the edge, so I fail to control my own tone and word choice when I reply, “I will never get married!”

Some women laugh at my reactions, some question me further, others shake their heads and make a comment that I’ll change my mind when I find the right Azerbaijani man…

Recently I’ve built a higher level of tolerance for the topic, enough to ask one simple question: Why? Why is it “high time” that I get married?

“You just should.”

Situation #3

I love learning about a culture’s proverbs and anecdotes. So when a friend started with “We have a saying in our country,” while we were out for lunch, I got excited. She continued: “A woman can make three things from nothing: a salad, a hat, and a fight.”

I processed: salad, check. Hat, check. Fight, check. Wait — what? A raging battle took place in my mind: one side encouraged me to laugh along and go with the flow while the other induced me to scream in protest, “What kind of a saying is that, I don’t start fights from nothing!!” Hayley — stop, have patience…

Even now, I get weirdly defensive whenever I think about this saying. If anything, I justified it with my reaction. I know it’s ridiculous yet, it is?

Situation #4

I’ve been told by some women that “marriage is a game.” It tends to be said during dinner parties, over tea, with no men around. The implication is that a wife holds a household together, but she has to make her husband think he’s responsible. If she wants anything done, she has to lure her spouse into thinking he came up with the idea. She can’t be too forward, because that’s brazen. I doubt that’s the case with every marriage in Baku, but the half dozen women present during this conversation agreed with the speaker.

I admitted that I didn’t like the idea of marriage being a game. Can it be teamwork? Life is hard enough, why complicate your marriage? But, no one really listened. What do I know anyway?

Situation #5

“She wants to say that she hopes you will have many children. Children of your own.”

I looked from my friend, who was translating, to the young woman who wished me many children. The expression in her deep, brown eyes was genuine, almost bashful, and I knew she meant well by her wish. There was no judgement, she wasn’t going to demand that I get married, she was simply blessing me. Her toddler daughter scurried across the office for the second time, tempting everyone — even me — to smile.

Situation #6

I’ve been flabbergasted at the rate and severity a woman’s life can be destroyed in Baku if she is divorced. Her career, personal and professional relationships, and financial safety all suffer. Her past must be kept secret from any potential suitor. Otherwise, he’ll assume she’s an easy woman who might as well give him any favors he asks from her.

Additionally, hearing other women talk about a divorced woman is…devastating to me. We don’t know the full story, how can we judge? She has children, can we show some compassion? If she cheated, we might as well expect the husband to have cheated too, several people have told me “that’s what happens here.” I’ve found myself getting strangely caught in the middle sometimes, a few people have asked me if whether or not this woman or that woman is indeed divorced. Simply put, it’s awkward.

But what is a divorced woman to do, suffer in silence? Yes. Either that, or leave everything in Azerbaijan and start over in a different country.

Situation #7

I looked at the group that showed up to English conversation class: five students, all girls. I scraped my pre-made lesson plan, “So, do you want to talk about boys?” They laughed and immediately jumped on the topic. Of course we talked about marriage, and it was interesting to note that the girls almost definitely wanted children, but weren’t so sure about that whole marriage thing. Eventually one of them turned to me and asked that fateful question, “Do you want to get married?”

I fought my usual knee-jerk response of “NO! I shall NEVER get married!” and channeled my responsible, role-model teacher side. I appreciated that she asked and, for a brief moment, I double-guessed myself.

“I’m not planning on it, but if the right one comes along, then sure.”

“How old do you want to be?”

Huh, I haven’t thought about that… “How old do I want to be if I meet the right person?”

She nodded her confirmation as the other girls leaned in or cocked their heads to the side. In a country where many girls get married fairly young (about 18 to 22), my answer was doubtlessly interesting.

“It would be great if I could meet him before I’m 30. But if I don’t meet him until I’m older, even 50, then I would be okay with that.” I also explained that I do other things in my life, such as exploring the world, in order to find happiness. It’s important to make yourself happy and not rely solely on a boyfriend/husband/significant other figure to do that for you.

Their smiles melted my heart. Now, I can only hope that if any of them wants to take a bit of a detour from tradition, that she will find support from friends and family.


Those situational snapshots are examples of some of my (many, many) on-going, inner dialogues during my time abroad in Azerbaijan as an American expat: Relationships, (specifically marriage), and what it means to be a woman in Azerbaijani society.

A part of me wants to never again voice any question on dating, relationships, sex, or marriage here. Some take it that I’m passing judgement on them and their culture. I will admit that yes, I judge something when I first come across it. Yet with people and their culture, I’m careful to bite my tongue until I formulate the best, noninflammatory statement or response. Although, I’m human and I know that my words can offend when I very much do not intend that.

It doesn’t help that I become offended when others try to convince me the relationship scene/marriage dynamics here are perfectly natural and work for everyone. Or when people slap a label like “Bad Girl” on me. My only response is to dig in my heels, halt all discussion, and quickly change the topic. I don’t want to confess that I disagree with them. I don’t want to confess that picturing myself as an Azerbaijani woman, either single or in a relationship, makes me uneasy. The experiences outlined above (and much more) suggest that a woman’s ultimate role and responsibility in Azerbaijani culture is to be a wife and mother. Sure, have a career, but it’s more important to have a family with the career. If she is divorced or remains unmarried, then she must lack morals. But the alternatives of cheating or entering into a lifelong commitment without genuine feelings seem immoral to me too.

It’s always at this point during my inner dialogue that I get frustrated with myself. Doesn’t this happen in the United States? Yeah. Haven’t people back home told you to “settle down already”? A handful, yes. Don’t couples cheat on each other all around the world? Sadly, yes. So why on earth are you so bothered by all that here?

Of course I don’t have a straight answer. Basically, I’m a cultural mess…I’m in cultural chaos.

I like to think that I can separate the personal from any new environment I encounter. And I can do that for a short amount of time. However, staying in a different place for a fairly significant amount of time challenges the will power to remain purely objective. It becomes emotional because I’m invested. Invested in the country as a curious observer. Invested in people as a resource, teacher, and friend. Invested in the crazy journey because it has challenged me in unexpected and empowering ways.

So this foreign culture in which I’ve been inserted has unearthed questions about my own home culture, and questions about myself, that I’ll agonize over for a while. (If you can’t tell by the end of this post, I’m really good at agonizing.) And you know, that’s alright. I think it’s good for people to be thrown into chaos every once in a while. It helps us evaluate and analyze our lives, and forces us to step back in an attempt to see the bigger picture.

Even though my time in Azerbaijan thus far has been a roller coaster, I’m excited to see what the next three months will bring, even if it just brings more questions and little answers.

Until next time…  (:


A fellow Fulbrighter in Azerbaijan wrote a piece somewhat similar as this post, but much more eloquently and with far less agony. I highly recommend it. Click here to read “With a Large Grain of Salt” from Madeline’s blog Land of Fire, City of Winds