Experiencing Azerbaijan

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Location: Kansas, United States

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Going punk in Baku

Baku, where I am visiting for a couple days, is a very windy city. The city is right on the Caspian Sea and I think it is from that direction that the wind comes. Very forceful and blows your steps awry! Today the rain rained, as they say, and the wind blew so I was glad to be snug in my little hotel room. Finally, the sky cleared, and I met Elchin and his friend and went to an alumni party of local teachers who have participated in programs in the US.

Baku is an interesting city—in one or two ways. I actually mean that the way it sounds. As I have mentioned, the traffic is almost out of control. The speed and attitude of drivers is insane. I was talking to a man yesterday and he said one day he must have had an attitude himself because he was walking on a sidewalk and some driver started backing up on the sidewalk and the man just kept on walking thinking to teach the driver a lesson. The driver jumped out of his car shaking his fist at and the man said, “I have a right to walk on this sidewalk,” and the driver said, “This car is bigger than you.”

So, that is one way that the city is interesting. Next, the ancient city walls are compelling but not beautiful. The walls are crenellated and curving and still surround the old city which has seemingly endless alleyways. I think a 40 minute walk would encompass the old city so it is rather small. The walls and city are constructed of a tan limestone and minerals leeching out of the rock and interactions with chemicals in rain have colored most of the stone a dingy grey black. When a national organization or business sets up shop within the wall, the first thing they do is sand blast the exterior. Then it is a lovely gold. A lot of the stone has been stuccoed (sp?)over and has not retained the character of even is colored limestone. And it is old…perhaps a thousand years?? Many rooms that I can see into are crumbling and dark.

Finally, so I guess I must say the city is interesting in three ways, is the sea right at our door. For someone who grew up in Oklahoma and has lived in Kansas for 20 years, the sea is beguiling and mysterious. In the immediate area is a sea all—no beach. In the little town where I live, it is continuous beach. The waves are ceaseless, of course, but every time I am near the sea, I find myself waiting for it to stop and just flow like a river. Another aspect that is strange is that the sand is black. It is all volcanic rock, ground to sand by thousands of years of waves. Very pretty.

The people of Baku don’t stare at strangers either. And after my experiment with international hair color, I look like one of those poor, middle aged women with a bad dye job—just like a native. I just don’t have the courage to either let the grey grow out a couple inches—also a native-like hairdo—then cut off the old color, or go into a hair salon when I don’t speak Azeri. So, I did it myself yesterday. I bought the coloring and sequestered myself in my room, and when I came out, I had maroon hair with purple highlights. If I were 20, I’d look punk. As it is, well, I am just glad YOU can not be the judge and only 3 million strangers can be. I was deeply distressed but thought, hey, you don’t look any worse than you did after being sick for eight days in 1984. With that encouragment, I hit the road. I walked a bit then fell into step behind a woman wearing a quilted winter coat the same color as my hair. Then I passed a car the same color. Then I began to fag a bit.

But, never mind the hair. Life is good. When I return to Lenkoran (also spelled Lankaran), I will probably get my class schedule. I will someday send a picture of my school. You won’t believe it. It is extremely poor and I first thought my guide was joking when we arrived at it. But, the teachers are very kind so I look to have a good year.

My landlady is also going to teach me how to cook some Azeri dishes. The food is great. The bread is incredible. Tandoor bread is a specialty of the area. There are dozens of bakeries built right at the sidewalk. Tandoor ovens are hive shaped and mudded over into smooth domes about 3 feet high. The fire is in the bottom, the hole at the top, and the exclusively women bakers make the dough, shape the “loaf” and slap it onto the inside of the oven. I believe the women are the ethnic Talysh women because the ones I have seen share physical characteristics, thinnish build, dark hair, very pretty and they all wear similar colorful clothing. The bread comes out in a long, thin loaf, with soft and crusty portions. It costs 1,000 manat—20cents. There are several bakeries I pass often so I hope someday to get the ladies’ permission to take some photos.

The food is good, too. Every lunch and dinner is served with chopped cucumbers and tomatoes. I don’t know what will replace those items after freezes. I already need to eat cucumbers daily. Bread is also served, and to drink with the meal, ayran. Ayran is a thin yogurt drink with salt, and sometimes mint, added. I buy fresh-made yogurt everyday from the woman across the street. The almost quart sized jar costs 20cents. Someone said it is probably buffalo yogurt but I have not seen any buffalo in Lenkoran. Azeris eat a lot of meat. My landlady made her grandson sautéed chicken and potatoes for breakfast. My favorite is bos besh – or something like that – which is chopped-with-an-ax-until-it-is-ground-meat mixed with rice and
seasoning and shaped into a large meatball, cooked in tasty broth. Details will follow when I know the details. Another dish is solz which is chicken cooked in a light tomato broth with potato. Ahhh…I am making myself hungry. Better leave off the food.

Some of you may know that KU and a university here, Western University, have developed a live video classroom exchange. Elchin Rizayev, a visiting scholar at KU last year, developed the Azerbaijan end, and Ray Finch and Eric Herron developed the KU end. I visited the class last Thursday and thought it was great. There were some technical difficulties, but I think that the exchange is important because it puts real faces to the politics of the country. School has not even begun in Azerbaijan, but Elchin has a great class of kids who came in weeks early just to take part in this class. The class is conducted in English and I hope everyone appreciates the efforts of the Azeri students speaking English.

Now, I better leave off the letter writing and get to my Bertie and Jeeves audio book. I can’t tell you how strange it is to lay/lie (?) in bed at night in this strange country and listen to PG Wodehouse — sweating — listening to the dogs arking—slapping mosquitoes—staring at the 16 foot high carved wooden ceilings. It is a time culture warp that bends my thoughts, then, everything meshes together into dream time and I am asleep.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Tea houses

Week two in Lenkoran has begun. This is Saturday and I had no teachers' meeting nor class so I had a formal break from doing nothing. Yesterday I asked if I could see the schedule. Ah. No schedule yet, maybe on the 10th. School begins on the 15th. School usually, always, begins on September 1. Government decree. This year, maybe because of the heat, the government announced school begins on the 15th. All schools. No one I have spoken with knows why.

The school is extremely poor. As I said before, the teachers earn $40 a month. The students, those who make it into college, do not pay tuition and in fact, are paid a small stipend. Students take a college entrance exam and based on that score, they are not admitted or are admitted to better or worse schools. My school is not a great school and I think it serves mostly locals and those from the southern part of the country. The cows that were grazing at the gate yesterday, technically, were not on the college property.

This has been an interesting past few days though. Throughout the country are thousands of tea houses where men pass their lives, and I assume, solve the problems of the country and discuss football--not necessarily in that order. Women are not allowed, although in the capital, women do sometimes go.These tea houses are so appealing...always in the shade and situated to catch what I think is the north-south breeze (I still don't have a sense of direction). We women scuff along the hot dirty streets, burdened with thin plastic bags of bread and tomatoes and cucumbers...sweat runs in rivulets down our foreheads, along our necks, down our stomachs...our feet are baking and our eyes are blinded by the sun. We pass countless tea houses where the men are stretched out in the shade. A waiter brings small glasses of tea and small plates of sliced lime or lemon. On every table is a bowl of sugar cubes. I can not tell you how enticing these tea houses appear.

In this setting, I had my new adventure.

Janet...and Kamal, and Baktiar and Hashim at the Tea House

I was scuffling down the above mentioned hot dusty streets yesterday, burdened etc...when suddenly one of the maniac drivers stopped beside me. I was startled into stopping. It was four men from the faculty of my school, including Kamal the director of my department. You will have to imagine four voices at once: two speaking French because since I don't speak Azeri and they speak French, they will try anything; one speaking Azeri but wishing he could speak English, and one sort of speaking English because, after all, HE is one of the English teachers at the school. But, all I heard was " you...tea house..."and I saw the shifting around in the car. They were inviting me to come have tea with them. I was deeply
honored. I was also deeply frightened because I was getting ready to get into one
of those cars. Still, one can not turn down such an offer, so I hopped in and
off we tore off down the street, tires screeching on the pavement. It was but a brief light year before we pulled up, tires skidding in the dust, at a tea house near the sea. Really. So wonderful. I said to Kamal that I thought they were very brave and he said, "We are colleagues." So, we had tea. After a while, I consulted my dictionary, came up with the phrase, "My house is near so I will walk home now," and I took off. They all stood up to see me off and Kamal again said, how healthy to walk! only all he could really say was...hhmmhealthy...

I asked them if I would be served if I went there alone and they said yes so I may investigate some day and I will let you know.