Monday, August 6, 2012
Strange how two words can change a morning. First it was pretty miserable. Woke up way too early with itchy mosquito bites from overnight. Wanted to get started washing the sweat stiffened clothes that I’ve been wearing for two weeks straight. When you do everything by hand, it’s a laborious process, best performed before the heat of the day sets in.
I opened and closed the appropriate valves in my water system.. and nothing. I did it again, thinking maybe I’ve forgotten the process during my travels. Again nothing. When I was out on the balcony turning the valves, I spotted my neighbor. “Su gelir?” I asked. Water, is it coming? “Gelmir,” was the answer. It doesn’t come. Bad news, since we have water every other day, and today is supposed to be a water day.
I doused myself with mosquito repellant, had some breakfast and settled down for some non-productive web surfing. After about half an hour, there was a knock on my door. When I looked out, there was only my neighbor, cleaning her doorway. I opened the door anyway, and she said the magic words.. “Su gelir,” water is coming.
When I ran out to my balcony to turn the valves, and I noticed a strange blue rope hanging from the apartment above me. It was attached to a string that had become tangled up on my clothesline. I untangled it,setting it free. Soon it was moving, and up from the ground below came a big bucket of blackberries. I was instantly jealous. Then the bucket paused in front of me. Was it an accident? Did the upstairs neighbor need to rein in the rope? Was it stuck? Or was it an invitation to help myself? I couldn't guess so I gave it a little boost, sending it up to the 5th floor above me.
I was so excited by news of the water coming, and the sight of the blackberries, that I nearly blew up my apartment . When I went in to light the water heater for my shower, I did the usual. Open the little door on the water heater, light a piece of paper , and stick it in the door.. suddenly a whoosh and flames burst out of the door singeing all the hair off my right hand and arm and blowing soot and ashes all over the bathroom. I still don’t know if the gas valve was left open by a guest.. or if I opened it before lighting the paper.. which is a recipe for disaster. At any rate, now I can have a shower, do laundry, and clean up the ash covered bathroom.
Sunday, July 8, 2012
Anyone who has been in Azerbaijan for more than three days probably has a tale of taxi terror to tell. Drivers speed and weave in and out of traffic as if they are the personification of crazed characters on the screen in a video game.
After my last ride, I’ve decided no marshrutka is disgusting enough to make me taxi it to Sirvan again. It started when I got to the Salyan Avtovagsal in Baku at 7:00 am, after dropping my daughter off at the airport. I got into a taxi after the driver told me he was going to Sirvan, and would take me to my house for 5 manat (standard price for a shared taxi.) I settled in for a long wait for other passengers, but twenty minutes later the car was full and the terror began.
As soon as we pulled out of the parking lot, I knew I was in trouble. The driver was trying to speed in heavy traffic which meant driving on the wrong side of the road, into the path of an oncoming bus if necessary. He screeched within inches of cars in front of us, slamming on the brakes and throwing us around inside the car. All of this was accompanied by throbbing music on the car stereo, played at a volume that could disrupt a whole neighborhood.
I was sure we were all going to die in that taxi, and I closed my eyes so the impact would be a surprise. Since I had only slept a couple of hours the night before, I mercifully fell asleep. About a half hour from Sirvan, I was awakened by a fellow passenger who wanted to know where I was going. I told the driver where I lived, and he said he was going to the village, and I would have to pay extra to go into the “city.” All of the other passengers swore they were going to the village too, and I was the only one who wanted to go to the city.
That put me over the edge. I yelled at the driver, telling him I was a guest in his country, teaching his children for free and I could not and would not pay anything extra. He and my fellow passengers laughed at this, quoting my use of Azeri.. but they understood what I was saying. The driver then asked my age, and told me he thought I was 50. Suddenly he thought I was his friend, and insisted I take his number so I could call him for rides in the future. It was too much trouble to say no, so I did, listing his name as “NEVER.”
We finally pulled into Sirvan, and, of course, the passengers who claimed they were going to the village got out at various points around the city. Soon I was dropped off at my door, feeling lucky to be alive, and vowing never to travel by shared taxi again. I’m also wondering why I would be treated this way in a country that prides itself on its hospitality.
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Tis the season…
The snow is long gone, the sun is out and it’s wedding (toy) season here in Azerbaijan. Everyone is going to weddings and engagement parties. I went to one of each recently, and they were as different from each other as Baku is from the rest of the country.
First my counterpart, Gulsabeh, invited me to her niece’s engagement party in a settlement outside of Sirvan. As far as I can tell, a settlement is even smaller than a village, which is quite a bit smaller than a “city” like Sirvan.
We took a “bus”, that was the usual decrepit and disintegrating 12 plus person van. I saw Azerbaijan’s Kur River for the first time as we bounced along country roads heading to the party. As we rumbled away from the city, the ubiquitous cinderblock houses became more scattered, and there were fields and open spaces between neighbors.
Gulsabeh’s brother welcomed us when we arrived, and as we went into his yard I spotted three huge pots, simmering on makeshift cinderblock fire rings, each with a well padded xanim (older woman) presiding over it.
We rounded the corner of the house, and it looked like a Silk Road Caravan had made a stop at Home Depot. An obviously long standing grape arbor had been turned into a party tent of sorts. The vines on top of the arbor were covered with blue plastic tarps, creating a surreal blue ceiling inside. The sides were made of carpets, or fabric printed to look like carpets. There were two long rows of white resin tables and chairs inside and scores of women had already claimed places. They ranged from beautifully made up women wearing the hijab, to xanims in their conglamoration of “best” dresses, falling down polka dot socks and broken down keds slip ons.
The party got into full swing as the groom’s family danced in carrying huge colorfully packed baskets over their heads. These baskets held everything from sweets to brushes and shampoo for the bride to be. They are supposed to have what she needs in the time before the wedding.
Soon the bride and groom walked stiffly into the tent. I’m sure they were nervous, since this was not only their engagement party, but also probably their first date. They had seen each other from a distance. She wore a tight red dress that burst into tiers of red ruffles at the hipline. Her hair had been piled so high and her make up done so precisely she would have done Barbie proud.
Their entrance was followed by the traditional feast. I’m learning not to eat too much at the beginning, because just when I think I’ve had enough some of my favorite courses arrive, including the kebabs.
There were some traditional rituals such as the bride and groom placing rings on each other’s fingers. The groom’s family buys the rings, presenting them and more gold to the bride at this ceremony.
Then there was the dancing, that went on and on and on. A man with a piece of red fabric tied onto his arm beckoned dancers onto the “floor” that was really a space in the dirt between the tables. Periodically someone would sprinkle water on it to keep the dust down. Things heated up fast with all the dancing on a muggy afternoon so a “wall” of the tent was peeled away to make more room and let the fresh air in.
Just about anything passes for dancing here, if you at least try to imitate the traditional style. I was doing my best trying to look like I knew what I was doing. A short plump woman,with the usual gold toothed smile decided she would be my partner. (women dance with women, the men dance together, but men and women don’t usually dance in the same circle.) I don’t know if she liked my style or thought I needed a teacher but she wouldn’t let me off the dance floor. It was fun or a couple of hours until I decided I’d had enough. She wouldn’t give up ,and became my tormentor, insisting we dance, while I was ready to go home.
After about 6 hours, I really was ready to call it quits. But the party was going strong with no sign of ending. Finally, after the bride and groom had fed each other pieces of cake, we piled into one of Gulsabeh’s relatives cars and headed back to the city.
The House Hunt Update
Below is the chronicle of my house hunt odyssey, which took way too much of my time and energy as I struggled to find a place that met Peace Corps standards, and would be covered by the PC housing allowance for Sirvan. I did finally manage to find a place that fit the first criteria, but was well over the second. Along the way, I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The first place I saw was one room, packed with furniture, but no table and chairs. I would have to sink into one of the bottomless armchairs, plate in hand if I wanted to eat. It did have an air conditioner. Asking price, 150 manat.
When I turned it down the owner offered to show me another apartment. It was two rooms, closer to the college, but one room looked as if there had been an explosion inside, with the paint and pieces of debris hanging off a whole wall. One room appeared to have black mold on all the walls. The light bulb in one room was hanging on a cord, and in the second room, there was no light at all! I took one look at the bathroom, but I couldn’t check it out a second time because there was no handle or door knob so I couldn’t go into the bathroom.. This place was filthy, you couldn’t open the bathroom door, it had no furniture, no screens, and had a whole wall of debris coming down. Asking price, 130 manat.
The next place had two rooms, but no furniture. The bathroom wall was coming down, and there was a shovel full of cement debris that had recently given way. I thought about taking this place and trying to negotiate the price , but the owner decided to sell it instead. Asking price to rent 150 manat.
When I stopped in at a shoemaker’s shack to get some new holes put in my belt (the house hunt is good for something!) , he told me he had a house to rent. I followed him way out into the country houses, farther from the college than I live now. I found a cement building with no running water inside, and a shared toilet out in the yard. The building shared the yard with another house and the whole place was littered with everyone’s stuff. Asking price 150 AZN.
A shop assistant also offered to rent me a country house. Although she said it wasn’t far from the college, I should have been suspicious when it took at least 10 minutes in a taxi to get there. It was in no way walking distance to the college. There was a one room building in an overgrown yard, no furniture, with the toilet outside. Asking price, 150 AZN.
Saturday a friend Leman and I started going building to building looking. We found one apartment with two rooms, paint intact, furnished, close to the college, even air conditioned. In other words, perfect. This was the apartment I wanted. Asking price, 150 AZN. Haggling with the landlord in Baku didn’t help, and I had to walk away because the price was too high. When I went back 2 days later, it had already been rented.
Sunday, Leman and I went hunting again, and this time it was painful. There were few people around to ask, and no real good leads. We eventually found a three room apartment, with a channel for the wastewater from the sink winding its way through the house. There was no refrigerator, no heat source, and no sink in the bathroom, but it was otherwise furnished. Asking price 150 AZN . I thought maybe I could make it work, but the landlord refused to come down in price or supply a refrigerator, so I had to walk way again.
We also found a bare bones one room apartment, that had most everything except a skaf for clothes or anything else. Books, clothes, papers etc would be piled up or strewn around the one room. There was a lumpy dusty stuffed monkey hanging in the corner and I knew I would end up in the same condition as the monkey if said yes to this place. Asking price 100 AZN.
Teachers at the college helped me look at two places this week. One, was a “country house” that was really one room in a bungalow. The bathroom and the kitchen were shared with students, and they were in separate buildings. Asking price for this one room 150 AZN.
The second was in a great location, and the owner was such a kind and generous person. The apartment was in good condition, but so small it didn’t have a chair or sofa to sit on. It was either sit at the dining table or in bed. There was no place to put a comfortable chair, or anything else. I don’t think there was enough space even to unroll a sleeping bag and there was no running water or sink in the kitchen. All dishes and fruit and vegetables had to be washed in the bathroom next to the toilet. 130 AZN.
Finally going to visit my site mate, I saw some people moving out of her building. I immediately asked for the landlord’s phone number, and Konul, my tutor helped me make contact the next day. The empty apartment had three rooms, in “normal” for Azerbaijan condition,, asking price 150 AZN.
I spent another day going building to building, with no success. I decided to try negotiating for the last place I saw. The landlady agreed to come down 10 AZN, so now I have to pay 140 a month, while Peace Corps only gives us 120. The other 20 will have to come out of my living allowance which will limit what else I can do here. My site mates all have to pay 130, but Peace Corps has been sticking to the 120 figure.