Wednesday, September 12, 2012

10.5 months later...

September 12, 2012

I realize that online blogs are supposed to be updated on a somewhat regular basis, in particular to recording travel/overseas life so that loved ones "back home" can know if you are still walking around on earth, or in extreme cases, want to hear about all the bathroom experiences you come across in a foreign country. Living and studying in Baku, Azerbaijan for over 10 months now, I have posted 2 or 3 posts on my blog that I was supposed to keep up with. And they were all done in October/November of 2011. It is now September 2012. So, apologies for those who were expecting more updates, although I don't feel sorry at all. Instead, I will write about my experiences that I can recall, and whether or not I will make some public is up to debate. But for now, a short reflection on this past year will suffice, and will also relieve some bundled- up thoughts.
To be completely honest with myself, my first thought, or a word that sums up to my perception of this year has been, a failure. Now I am sure that Boren Scholarship/Fellowship, the scholarship that I am in service to that has provided this  trip to be possible, would not be all to excited to hear such a statement. However, truth should be told,  and truth is, this year has been a hardship. No, the past 2 years have been a hardship. Most recently, I have lost my father to an almost 2-year struggle with brain cancer. The word "grief" is given a whole new meaning when you lose someone who loves you more than you can know (and vice versa), and understood you in ways that others could not. You feel the insanity when others around you have no idea what that might feel like. And then you still move on, or at least forward. Somehow....but you cannot figure out why people still live life around you when yours is put to an abrupt halt, a comatose in moving time. What you thought was once clear to you, becomes confusing and the simplest tasks feel like you just ran one of those marathons that skinny people like to do. I could just go on to say words like "grief, depression, losing a loved one, etc..." but words merely can't describe life as being such a bitch sometimes. (I am sorry, for those with delicate stomachs reading this.) And all the while, I am back in a country that I has become my second home, but yet also  a stranger to me from time to time.
I have discovered that living in Baku is a barn owl's hoot world away from what I grew up in small town Kentucky. I had considered myself before I came here to be pretty adaptable and flexible with changes around me and with myself, but I was proven not necessarily wrong, but moderately exaggerated. Walking down Targova (the inner part of the city) I could see that a pair of Gucci shoes would cost as much as a teacher's monthly salary here, or the numerous Mercedes or BMW's that would whizz down the street....or the gaudy carpets that filled the newly-built mini mansions for those who can afford them ( or pretend to afford them) and the wallpaper that looks like the Italian Renaissance barfed on it. For the most part, the only reference that Azerbaijanis have towards Kentucky is Kentucky Fried Chicken, which does have a fast-food joint in the Park Boulevard Mall. I have been ok with that, and I understand that Kentucky is not exactly New York City or Los Angeles; I was happy to pick up a world that was not my own and learn how Azerbaijanis view life through their customs, traditions, and behaviors. I wanted to be that super-adaptable person who could soak up a whole new culture, language, life, and by the end of the year you would not be able to recognize me. I would be that good. You would say "Who is that girl that just went to Azerbaijan for a year? I don't even begin to understand how much she must have experienced. Plus, she also looks cool."
My intentions for going to Azerbaijan and studying abroad have been good, I really want to learn the Azeri language and finish my bachelor's degree, and learn about a different part of the world. But my experience was not what I was expecting. I did jump into living with a host family for the first four months I was here; I thought that would surely give me an advantage. I planned to stay with them the whole year. I was eager to become one of them. However, I was quickly discouraged after a couple of months when I realized that their family structure was different than my own,  language barrier at first is very frustrating, especially when you want to communicate things basic or complex, and the older children with whom I would be exchanging English lessons with, so that I could be a helpful part of the household, were uncooperating with to teach. In return, tensions arose, my own continual stresses of my family back home were still with me, and I became isolated. There are several things I could blame this for, but in the end, I chose to stay to myself, and although I made the wise decision to move out, I did not leave the feeling of bitterness of being misunderstood. Defensiveness was my protection at times, and became a habit for me during the months that followed. I still made incredibly wonderful friends during my stay here, both local and international, and have learned so many things from them, but I had already failed at my first goal.
I am really good at living independately in a foreign country, I have learned. Besides having finacial dependence from my scholarship and occasionally from family, I know how to pinpoint what I need to survive, and can work hard at it. I get stuff done, when needed. I have been both a full-time student and a responsible young adult. I love this freedom. But, I have struggled in other ways. My language learning was and still is a sensitive subject for me to confront. Oh, I have been learning the language, Azerbaijani, but not as progressive as I wanted. For the most part, Azerbaijainis absolutely love it when a foreigner is trying to speak their language. That is so encouraging, to have experts of the langauge excited to speak with you, laugh with you when you learn to pronounce new sounds. At the bazaar I have been the tall spectacle who ends up having 5 or 6 vendors speaking to me all at once, happy to see that I know how to bargain in Azeri. Its interesting to have complete strangers invite you to their homes to have chai. But my own discouragement of not progressing as fast as I wanted to came from my expectations, lack of direction from time to time, several neagative experiences and criticisms. I've had a few people tell me "Oh, you've been here this long and you don't speak as well as/you don't know....". I let that cut my core. I get mini depressions, I forget the big picture, and get jealous of those who seemed to absorb these kind of things easier. When I would skype with my father, however, at the time we could still talk with each other, he would always say how proud he was of me for doing this. I didn't realize that I have been my biggest enemy in all of this. My dad gave his sense of adventure to me, and he was speaking life into it. All I needed to do was to hang onto that and let go of everything else.
Reflecting back on the last 10 months of my life, I see that some of my biggest regrets have been lies. Most of them have to do with what I should have/could have done with my father before he passed, but others come from time spent on things I did not have to worry about, relationships that I went into, crashed and burned from, and expectations that maybe weren't all that realistic.  Sure, we make choices that may not be wise, and once they are made, we do sometimes have to deal with the consequences. But the present gives us the grace to not dwell on what that could have been different, or better. I wish I didn't isolate myself from being a part of a whole life change, that I would have had more courage to seek the truth in my situations. I wish I could have grown in my faith or personal self in a much more clear way. I think of people maybe I have hurt or disappointed along the way. To not have escaped so fast when I should have confronted. But life happens from time to time, and we are not always taught how to deal with things. Where is it that you learn how to process loss in your life, to deal with heartbreak? Some people might disagree, and that is ok, but I find it easy to have faith in God these days. When you are desparate, you find something bigger than yourself to lean on.
I was with my friend Firuza's family last night at their house, eating with them, drinking chai and talking about things (I realized how much more I could understand in Azeri now then I did several months ago). With my dear Azerbaijani friend Firuza, her mom, and her cousin, we were talking about life, family, difficulties for me and for them, and why Bella does not deserve Edward in Twilight. Also, we discussed how Leonardo Dicaprio looks good nowadays, and not during his Titanic years. We have different situations, but the same hopes. I appreciated so much how they accepted me into their evening of talking and drinking tea. It seems so simple to them, but so much for me, and I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. Not striving, trying, but living.
I only have a couple of more months here in Azeribaijan, until my visa expires and it is time for me to go back to the States. I don't have plans to close Azerbaijan out of my life; it is has been an opening to a new begining of pursuing dreams and living life. All I know now is to embrace what is good, and learn how to let go when needed.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ways to Avoid Being Ripped Off from a Taxi Driver in Baku if You Are Foreign

Let's face it, if you a foreigner traveling abroad, or you just look foreign, sometimes you get screwed over when it comes to something like paying for a taxi fare. Being a college student and living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, you do what you have to not end up homeless. And sometimes locals equate foreigners with dollar (or Manat) signs. Here is a list of helpful advice, and the ones with the asterik I have already tried, and succeeded. 
  How to Not Get Cheated Out of Your Taxi Ride:

1. Take the Metro or Bus instead. It's way, way cheaper. So what if the handle bars are greasy, or someone asks you to hold their child? Deal with it. *everyday

2. Learn your numbers in Azerbaijani. Also, learn how to say "How much..?" Also, learn how to negotiate. BEFORE you get it the car. Act like you have no interest in their pricing, and then they eventually give in. Sometimes. *

3. Fake-cry your way out of paying way too much. Nothing is more uncomfortable and obnoxious than a foreign, crazy girl (or guy even) who is crying in your taxi. They will not want to deal with you. *

4. Yell at them in Russian. They might pretend to not understand. But they do. *

5. Get your cellphone out and tell them that you are calling the U.S. Embassy. I am pretty sure they would not like this. Don't actually call them.

6. Wear your hair kind of fancy and that skirt that makes you look like a hooker. Can't say if this will work for a guy, or if you are just an ugly motha, then, well, let's be serious.....skip this one...

7. Take someone with you who is a native Azerbaijani. *

8. Take another foreigner with you. Nothing is better than 2 or more dumb foreigners in the taxi. The driver will think he has hit jackpot. If he tries to screw everyone over, just have everyone start crying.

9. If the driver guy finds out your American, and wants to express all of his political opinions about America, agree with whatever he says. Bush or Obama? Yes. It doesn't matter if he is wrong. He will be nice to you. *

10. Start your own taxi service.

Baku State of Mind Music Video

So, a couple of Peace Corps volunteers made this video in Baku some time ago....and I wish I could be cool enough to do something like this...
but many of the places shown in this video I have been to! Enjoy, and it will make you want to watch it at least 7 times a day. Not that I do that.....

While In the 'Baijan........Caspian Dreams are Coming True.

     I think 2 months is enough time to think about creating a decent first time blog dedicated to my travels and stay in Baku, Azerbaijan. Hey, I needed time to get over my jet lag.
        Hello American friends, family, colleagues, whoever is actually going to read this thing; I will try my best to write this for the perspective of those who have no idea what Azerbaijan is all about, but let's face it, I am not even entirely sure what Azerbaijan is all about. So, I advise you that I cannot guarantee that I will hold my caution for the sake of the wind when it comes to what you want to hear about my abroad-i-ness (or making up of words). I was thinking about if my Blauogh (it's how I am pronouncing the "blog", because it sounds so much classier that way) should have a specific theme to it, like it being only about the political science-y/international relations/foreign language subjects that I am studying here. But I am pretty sure I would bore the hell out of you after I write 5 paragraphs about Azerbaijani foreign policy. Except for Dr. Williams of Campbellsville University. I think he would have a freaking ball with that. I also just considered writing about personal experiences only, like all the emotional, culture shock crap that people tend to blog about while not in America. But that would make me want to shoot myself. So, it's going to be a bit of everything. And I cannot promise you that I won't cuss. Because life is gritty. And I like to say the word "gritty". So, Campbellsville University, you being a private, Baptist-valued institution, I have warned you.
     Hmmmm, seems like I am not much for words after being here for over two months, which, by the way, is the time when you start to realize that you can either dwell on the fact that you are in a different, different world and "culture shock" (what does that even mean??) happens on a regular basis, or you can learn to adapt. My English level has dropped significantly here, since my America departure, because for the most part, I speak slow, simple words to many Azerbaijanis that may or may not understand me. Oh, and hand gestures work wonders but it also says "I am an idiot". My level of Azerbaijani (come on, its the official language here! You should know that.) is that of survival level, meaning I can bargain for food, a taxi ride, or for a extension on my midterm paper. But its also hard to keep speaking Azerbaijani, because everyone around you asks you to teach them English. Like 97% of them. And my classes at Khazar University in Baku are taught in English. Thank God. Or else I would still have no idea what democracy means. Haha, jokes CU professors! But, the best way to throw your whole self into the foreign language experience is to live with a local host family. It's what I am doing now. Besides being some of the nicest people ever, they also teach me to speak in Azerbaijani. They mostly tell me to eat food. It's so difficult here. :)
    One word to describe Baku, or Azerbaijanis, would have to be Mosaic. In terms of culture, socially, the people are a mixture of things that make them an Azerbaijani. Some things contradict each other, while other things have come from an evolution of tradition and modernity. Probably some of the most hospitable people in the world are in Azerbaijan. But many are wary of outsiders, those particularly outside of Baku, but the glares and stares prove that you don't become best friends on day one. Azerbaijanis, especially the younger generation, like being modern like anyone else, but there is a strong presence of tradition. Hell, if you were a small country sitting in the middle between Turkey, the Caucus, Russia, and Iran, of course you would want to hang on as much cultural identity as possible. But, another word to describe them is Realists. When it comes to politics, their role in the world, these people are strategists. I mean, the students in all my classes. They get that the world doesn't work on nice ideas of "everybody hold hands". Maybe it has to do with all what they have been through, with being under Soviet rule in the past, or their regional conflict of Nagarno-Karabakh.....also, if you lived in a small, landlocked country with a surplus of oil, then maybe you would think strategically as well. In a final thought, there is so much I don't know still about the Azerbaijani people I am meeting here, but I am sure that I am learning more from them then they are from me.
  I don't want to overkill this first blog, since technically I would write thousands of words to make up for the laziness I have been with my posting. Yeah, that's right, I'm lazy. Let that excuse resonate in your gums. Because it's the only legitimate excuse I have.
   My host mom, who's name I would love to spell for you but can't, has been planning her brother's wedding this past week or so, and she just came home....and when I went downstairs to see her, she gave me a little frilly bag full of candy! It's part of all the wedding preparation they are doing. I was so, so freaking excited to hear that her brother is getting married because I thought that meant I would go. To the wedding. If you don't know, weddings in Azerbaijan can be a pretty damn big deal. But I just learned that they are leaving for Kazakhstan to have a small wedding ceremony. WTF?? Why can't I come?? Because I can't. I'm going to be stuck here with the kids. Teaching English as usual. But hey, how often do you say you have to go to Kazakhstan to see your brother get married? I am not entirely sure if he has even met his woman yet. But back to the candy bag, she told me to eat half the candy tonight and put the rest under my pillow and I will dream of the guy I am supposed to marry. Something magical like that. If I wake up only to find melted chocolate under my pillow, I am going to be pissed. Because what will George Clooney think if I have melted candy on my pillow?! Not attractive.
    Ok, I am tired of typing. I am going to say that I will post now more frequently, as I realize it's not that bad. I do enjoy writing. Really. I just don't enjoy explaining things to people. Oh, also, I should post cool pictures of me doing stuff in Baku, just to prove that I am really here. Or to prove that I am becoming culturally sensitive. Or to prove I am not that much of a loser. Let me figure out technical things with my camera and you might see me.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

First actual blogging of my Azerbaijan trip will be coming pretty soon....