Sunday, June 23, 2013

Qobustan (Almost)

I’ve been surprised, and somewhat saddened to find out that most people in Azerbaijan haven’t been able to see some of the beautiful and historic places in their country.  I hear the reasons:  I have no time, I have no money, I have no chance.  The last rings true for me.  When you’re a woman, who is not used to traveling, organizing an expedition to someplace you’ve never been seems impossible.

When one of my counterparts said she’d like to go to Qobustan, I said “Let’s go.” When she asked how, I told her, “We’ll get a bus, we’ll get a bunch of people to go with us, and we’ll go.”  She didn’t seem to think this was possible, but when we mentioned it to our AzETA group, most teachers were keen on going.  The date was set, and the bus was booked, the plan was made.

The day before the trip, I asked my counterpart to call a phone number I had for Qobustan, to make sure they knew we were coming, and everything was ok.  We were assured it was.

Everyone was excited getting in the bus, and we made a few stops around town to pick up some stragglers.  But when we came to the  Qobustan highway exit, we could see it was closed.  Our intrepid driver tried to go around the barrier, but a construction worker told him we couldn’t use the road.  Our driver did the next most logical thing, and tried to go around the construction worker.  It might have worked, except the worker called to a dump truck driver to back down the road and block our way. As the truck came closer and closer to pushing our bus backward, we had no choice but to back up.

We went further up the highway, found a place to make a U-turn, and approached the entrance from the other side. 
We parked at the museum, and piled out.  I was so happy when I overheard one teacher tell another , “This is my dream come true.” 

Unfortunately, our euphoria was short lived.  We toured the very interesting museum, and enjoyed chatting and snacking under a nice sunshade.  Now, I thought, it’s time for the real thing, to see the petroglyphs on the rocks, left thousands of years ago. Then I was told we couldn’t go up there.  We couldn’t see what everyone wanted to see, because there was some  " work" being done there.  An international forum was coming, and I think "security and safety" precautions were underway.
  I don’t know if I was the last to get the news, but I was definitely the angriest one on our bus.  We came so far – not in distance, but in possibility- how could our dreams be dashed so quickly.  They were.

This could be a heartbreaking end to the story of hope and exploration, but fortunately it’s not.  On the way back, I heard one teacher say to another she’d like to go to Sheki, and she had never been.  Several others said they wanted to go, and they agreed to go two days later.  I have to admit I wondered if it would happen…  But two days later, I got a text, they were in Sheki.  Now the door’s been opened, who knows where they will head next.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Different Perspective

On the surface my life in Azerbaijan seems pretty normal.  Or maybe I just have a different perspective, now that I have been here more than a year. 

   The gas situation a couple of weeks ago really made that clear to me.
 Mid week I  discovered there was no gas.  Turn on the stove, light the match, hoping to cook something for lunch.. and nothing.  So much for my dreams of hot soup, or at least a cup of hot tea.  No heat to take the edge off of a chilly day. Instead of trying to figure out why a gas rich country can’t supply enough gas to its residents, I got out the bread and cheese.  I was pleased with myself that I had  a shower a few hours earlier when there was gas in the pipe to heat the water.

Day 2- no gas.  My coffee craving was off the charts, but I figured fruit always makes a good breakfast,  and I was glad I had just gone to the bazar.   I had bought everything I needed, because for the previous four days I  couldn’t  buy anything.   There was no money in the ATM machine, which meant no cash for me, or anyone else.  In this cash only economy, no cash means no shopping.   I was thanking my lucky stars  that I had peanut butter in the frig.

Day 2 - Dinner time, no gas, no problem.  I knew there was a reason I saved that last bit of beef jerky.  Some tangerines, a cookie, and I was good to go.  Who needs to cook?  Although the idea of a hot meal was appealing on such a cold rainy day.

Day 3- no gas.  I must admit I was trying to figure out where to get a hot cup of tea, if not coffee.  Then I remembered my recently acquired oven. My site mate whose service just ended gave it to me.  I didn’t use the oven to make coffee, but  later, I poured my soup into a large baking pan and “baked” it  until it was steaming.  Not the most energy efficient cooking I’ve done, but I finally got  something hot. 

Day 4- A flicker of gas.  Enough to heat water to boiling in about half an hour.  I am getting tired of bread and cheese, and I’ve even had enough pomegranates.  After meeting with a school director, I find myself temptingly close to my favorite hardware store.  I spot the answer to my problems on display outside.  It’s called a “gas balloon.”  A squat, round propane tank, with a burner mounted on the top.  I can’t resist.  When the store owner shows me there’s even a little gas inside, I splurge and bring it home, thinking now I will be in charge of my own destiny, or at least my ability to cook.  I fire it up, and the water is boiling in no time. 

 The next day I wanted to fill it up, so I wouldn’t run out of gas during some culinary extravaganza.   All I needed was more money from my account for the taxi  to the propane place, and of course some cash for the gas.   Not so fast..  the ATM was out of cash…… again.  No cash=no gas. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Two Words

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

Taxi Terror

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..

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.