Pure May-Ham!

First and foremost, I want to wish a very Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms of the world, especially my own, who’s birthday is today and the anticipation of her visit is on the tip of my tongue whenever anyone asks, “Ne var, ne yox?” (What’s new?) I’m excited to show her the place I’ve been living for almost two years and to introduce her to the country that I once couldn’t pronounce, but now will never forget.

The most pressing news is the recent earthquake that hit Azerbaijan yesterday. There were no casualties and only minor structural damage near the epicenter, however the effects were felt around the country as schools were cancelled from aftershocks rumbling, sending vibrations of fear throughout the Ministry of Education. Some schools were even cancelled today in anticipation for another earthquake, which never happened. For my friends who have had the experience of an impending Nor’easter, the result was very similar; children got to enjoy a school-sanctioned day of hookie, thanks to Mother Nature’s intimidation.

In other news, Steph and I visited the beautiful region of Ivanovka last weekend. Admittedly, we wanted to explore the famed vineyard and winery to sample some of their homegrown hooch but we happened upon a world that was as intimate as a cavity search at the airport, in a good way. We ventured to the neighboring region on a bumpy road in a crowded marshrutka, the suggested mode of transport for PCVs. Observing the rich and expansive landscape of Ismailli, we tried to ignore the oppressive heat of summer. When we arrived in Ivanovka, we were greated by a bubbly Russian Bakuvian, Tanya, who owns a Bed & Breakfast with her British transplant husband, John. The place was well maintained, there was a fully functional kitchen with hot water on demand. Also, there were lots of animals scurrying around so I had someone on my level to talk to. After getting settled, we decided we needed nourishment for the weekend, which might include some spirits, so a trip to the supermarket was in order. Naturally, we saw people meandering around the quaint village, however they weren’t dark-skinned, dark-haired Azeris. Everyone had blonde hair and blue eyes. Turns out, this village is mostly Russian. Instantly, our language skills became obsolete as we were transported to an enclave micro-region within Azerbaijan. We could wear shorts, buy alcohol, and act like tourists when only a short hop away from home.

The next day, we went to visit the main attraction of Ivanovka, the winery. After bumbling through an exchange for a taxi ride with police officers and interested pedestrians while stopping traffic on the main thoroughfare, finally we were on our way. Our driver informed us that we would be travelling through four villages to get to the isolated mirage that would be the factory. Upon cresting over a particularly menacing hill, we saw the factory in all its glory. The spacious vineyard of grapes that stretched for over 850 acres, the pristine hotel with tennis courts and crystal clear pool, and the wood-finished exterior of the anomaly that is the Ivanovka Winery. We were blown away that a place of this magnitude and beauty could exist in such a remote part of Azerbaijan. It was also astonishing to learn that in a mostly Muslim country, the government would initiate the idea to have a winery in order to attract tourists and exploit the resources of Ismailli’s land. Needless to say, we had an amazing tour and our Azerbaijani guide spoke phenomenal English, answering our questions with technical vocabulary and jargon that rivaled most native speakers. After we had been chatting for a couple hours in English about wine and culture, we switched over to Azerbaijani and shared our experiences of living abroad over incredible, award winning Cabernet Sauvignon. After buying another five bottles, we thought it appropriate to cut our losses and head home. I would recommend a trip to Ivanovka to anyone visiting this country, PCV or ExPat alike.

The general feel of the coming summer is an overload of work. I’ve been finishing the semester strong, working with my counterpart to plan knowledge competitions and alphabet holidays as the textbook comes to a close. My club in the city continues to impress me as one of my Writing Olympics winners received 1st place at the International Level, the only Azerbaijani to do so. Sports are in full swing as I juggle Softball practice for the kids, in preparation for an opening day tournament on May 20th, and village organized soccer tournaments as I started playing for the Garakhidir team. Also, as I mentioned before, I’m trying to get ready for Average Mama Thornton to come visit in two weeks, organizing guesting and planning a trip to Eurovision. And last but not least, I’m getting a puppy next week! It’s a girl and would be welcome to ideas for names. Until next time. Azer-bye-bye!

Right on!

I want to congratulate all the participants from Goychay in this year’s Writing Olympics (aka Write On!), especially Mehran, Ayxan, Husneya, and Shelley who placed (3rd, 1st, 1st, 1st) in their respective grade levels! You made this ol’ English major proud…

The Write On! International Writing Competition was formally known as the Writing Olympics before the Olympic Games Committee got wind of this injustice and made them change the name. I can’t help but be reminded of the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) being forced to change it’s name to the WWE after the World Wildlife Federation thought they were getting the shaft. Although nobody thought the Undertaker was giving “The Tombstone” to defenseless critters but yet, this non-profit organization decided to take down the multi-billion dollar conglomerate. Anyway, its an international creative writing competition now in its 7th year of existence. Initially, it was created to give Post-Soviet countries like Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia, who were stifled in writing creatively and in essay form, an outlet to submit their creative works and foster individuality. It has since grown to nine participating Peace Corps countries and children are given the opportunity to compete on a national and international level with their peers.

My conversation club had been preparing for months as I gave them endless prompts and sample questions. No matter how much they begged to do something fun, I encouraged them to keep writing. When they complained about blisters and cramps, I told them to suck it up. After arguing in a debate they had no opinions on in an effort to harness their ability to persuade an audience, I said they would thank me later. For a job with very little tangible results, I’m going to let this one marinate for a little bit. I’m thinking next week we need to celebrate the nice weather and success with some Pomegranate smoothies!

So Many Holidays, So Little Time

Last week started off with a sombre holiday. In fact, it really should be considered a day of remembrance for those killed during the Khojaly Massacre. For those who aren’t familiar, the massacre took place on February 25-26, 1992 in the town of Khojaly killing 613 civilians, including 106 women and 83 children. It is considered the largest massacre during the course of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Our school did our part by putting on a Khojaly Tedbir (assembly) with recitations of the tragic events, poetry readings, and calls to action. It was a sobering way to start off March, as the weather was finally starting to look up. On the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, Washington, DC also recognized this injustice by putting PSAs up around the city on subways, billboards, and bus stops. 

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Afterwards, I headed up north to greener pastures and more interesting topography. After a jaunt in Oguz,  it was up to Balaken to surprise Steph for her birthday. What started out as a weekend visit turned into a week stay-cation with my favorite honorary site-mates. After the birthday festivities started winding down, because naturally she took the week, it was time again to celebrate the coming of spring with a Beach Party. We had all the necessary beach accouterments: playlist filled with Jimmy Buffett and Beach Boys, a house full of winter-jaded PCVs in beach chic, homemade Twister and 20 liters of homemade fig mead. The festivities went on without a hitch and the crew was flawless. 

The coming spring feels like a blooming flower, rejuvinating and colorful. All the softballs are thawing out and I’m finding many new contacts coming out of hibernation. More good news to come!

Urban Dictionary #4

Aside

Garbage cow – 1) n Someone who will unapologetically finish your food or drink, similar to a cow eating garbage. Man, I can’t believe we ate all that Georgian khajapuri those guys didn’t want to finish. We were serious garbage cows last night. 2) v To enter an establishment with the intention of eating/drinking for free, even if said establishment offers food/drink. Good call on garbage cowing Finnegan’s tonight with those Red Bull cocktails. We must have saved 8 manat.

Back in the Swing

It has been nearly a month since I landed back on Azerbaijani soil from Dubai and it has been tough to shake off the last grains of sand that stuck to me like glitter. Since listening to someone regurgitate their vacation is like listening to them analyze and dissect their dreams, I’ll be brief. I only want to share the magical experience of a Friday Brunch, of which we had two, because it is unlike anything I have had the pleasure of tasting. Picture yourself walking down a flight of stairs in a classy resort, when suddenly you are greeted by a waiter handing you a glass of champagne amidst a mass of people who are making their way to their respective tables. He wisks you to your table, trying to distract you from the plethora of free food at every turn. There are 8 dining rooms and an outdoor patio filled with every imaginable kind of food including, but not limited to, Thai, Japanese, Mexican, Indian, Turkish, Chinese, seafood, BBQ, and a fully-stocked sushi bar. You might be asking yourself, “How am I going to wash down all this deliciousness?” There are bartenders, mixing cocktails and drinks made from dry ice at the various bars around the hotel including, but not limited to, Bacardi, Absolut, and Jack Daniels to name a few. The brunch lasts for a surprisingly fast four hours which means you need to be both strategic and efficient. Here are the few rookie mistakes I observed after multiple brunches. 1) Don’t drink the champagne. It’s loaded with sugar and will only create the illusion of being full. 2) Eat something before brunch. It will expand your stomach and prepare your body for the punishment you are about to enact on it. 3) Stay away from breads and starches. Although they will most definitely be delicious, save room for meat plates and sushi platters. 4) Don’t go back to the same station twice. It’s not impossible, but it takes some effort to eat at least one of everything. 5) No chit-chat. We met some veteran Brunch-goers and they were socializing during valuable food consumption time. Forgive me, but I’m a PCV, so I need to eat as much as I can in the alotted time. Yeah, the Burj Khalifa and the Grand Mosque were impressive, but the Dubai Brunches were the most satisfying events of my vacation.

Ice sculptures and Sushi


Upon my return, a quick week back at school, then off to Georgia for some riding and birthday shenanigans. We left for Tbilisi via the Balakan border, en route to the premier Heliskiing Mountain in the Caucuses, Gudauri. It is an open-faced, expansive mountain with little forestation that left plenty of room for the fresh snow that they received a few days earlier. There were helicopters flying all around the mountain, dropping kite skiers and parachuters wherever you looked. It was perfect weather for riding so we made the most of it. The day we arrived, they opened the lift to the summit so we got first tracks in about 3 feet of marshmellow clouds. It was a serious burn on the quads so naturally, at the end of the day, we hunted down a sauna and hot tub to massage our muscles. Since this mountain is mainly a destination for Georgians and Russians, we got lessons in taking a Russian showers (or Snow Slugs) by rolling in the show and proceeding immediately to the sauna. Heavenly. Our hotel was located right on the mountain (ski-in/ski-out), making trips to town for local Georgian cuisine like khajapuri, khengal, and cha-cha (Georgian grain alcohol) not only a regular occurance, but necessary. All in all, we had a great weekend garbage cowing through Georgia. This trip was followed by our Mid-Service Conference (MSC), an invigorating birthday romp in ol’ Baku.

A blank canvas is a terrible thing to waste


We arrived at the conference on my birthday, the first time seeing our AZ8 group together since PST. The celebration was heightened by everyone being in the same place with the completion of our first year of service. We went out for kareoke and garbage cowed our way through the bright lights of Baku. In my modesty, I decided to take the whole birthday week because you only get one ‘Golden Birthday’ a lifetime. I hung around Baku long enough to go to Eurovision later that week with the PCAZ team of Brad Kessler and Tim McNaught, better known on the Eurovision circuit as the Caspian Dreamers. It was a pretty exhausing week but a quarter-century is a pretty big milestone. I mean, I can finally rent a car when I get back to America and I can smell my quarter-life crisis coming right around the corner. Next milestone, 40.

That's an attractive group

Also of note, at MSC we received COS (Completion of Service) dates in a lottery and I got the first possible date, November 7th. My tentitive plan is to travel east going to India, Nepal, Russia, China, Thailand, and other parts of Southeastern Asia. Inshallah, I will be home in time for Thanksgiving. Any tips, suggestions or requests to meet up along the way, don’t be afraid to shoot me a message.

This banner year is looking like the most successful time of service for me. There are projects and opportunites galore, from Softball and ABLE to Writing Olympics and Blogging Clubs. Now my community has an expectation of me and I of them so I’m just getting comfortable in my conservative village niche. Also I’m excited for the next year in anticipation for doing work and making a sustainable, attainable future for Goychay and Azerbaijan.

Quick Update

So I realize the time between posts is getting longer, but it can only mean that I’m too busy to deliver one that is up-to-snuff. To give you an idea, I just got back from a loooong weekend in Georgia, riding the fresh powder and eating the most delicious pork in the Caucuses. Two weeks before that I spent Christmas and New Years with the most welcoming of hosts, the Ormstons, in the most beautiful of places, Dubai. I just want to thank them for inviting me into their new home during this holiday season for what was an unforgettable trip. I’ll let the pictures do the talking (on my Google+ account).

This week, I’m gearing up for my golden birthday and Mid-Service Conference in Baku. A more inclusive report on what I’ve been up to, coming soon. Hold tight.

Highlights from My 1st Year of Service

In sequential order…

Novruz with the Host Family; Garakhidir, Goychay, Azerbaijan

Posing with Dunya on the Last Day of School; Garakhidir, Goychay, Azerbaijan

Tons of Candy at the Grand Bazaar; Istanbul, Turkey

Lul's Sunset Jump into the Mediterranean; Amalfi Coast, Italy

Independent Housing finally; Garakhidir, Goychay, Azerbaijan

11th Form giving flowers to the incoming 1st Form on the First Day of School; Garakhidir, Goychay, Azerbaijan

All the Softball teams pose for a Tournament picture; Balaken, Azerbaijan

My favorite 9th Form class dresses up for Halloween; Garakhidir, Goychay, Azerbaijan

One of many pomegranate infused foods at the Pomegranate Festival; Goychay, Azerbaijan

Yeah, that's pork kabob at St. George's Pilgrimage; Qax, Azerbaijan

An Azeri Snowman and Woman on Thanksgiving; Qax, Azerbaijan

Ilham Aliyev is known as the grandfather of Azerbaijan and Santa Claus is known as Frozen Grandpa thus...; Qax, Azerbaijan

Congratulations to all my fellow AZ8 volunteers for making it through our first year, and welcome to the new AZ9 volunteers. Hope your first year is as memorable as mine. Merry Christmas and Yeni Il Mubarek!