Experiencing Azerbaijan

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Location: Kansas, United States

Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Day of Knowledge

This is a very big moment in Azeriland. I am sending this email from home and I am about as excited as I can get. Last night I began this letter at my favorite Internet Klub.

I began by saying: I am inside my favorite Internet Klub and outside the generators are humming. The door is shut, almost tight and on the television is yet another program of live, traditional music--my favorite three culture ingredients: noise, heat and exhaust. And that is about where I got to when the generator failed, again, the computer crashed and with it, my momentum for writing. Along with those feelings came the realization that it was time to get it together at home. I went along today to someone who helped me get my "first time internet user" card installed, got the value installed and here I am. Some time has passed since I last wrote.

There is no one big reason but many small reasons that seem to erode my determination. I have been in Lenkoran for seven weeks, two days, fourteen hours and thirty seven seconds. Just kidding about the seconds. We have moved from the dregs of summer to the approach of autumn and as in Lawrence, the change was signaled with rain, damp and a radical drop in night time temperatures. The days are still slightly muggy. The university here is not quite what I expected nor hoped for. They have a markedly different attitude toward classes and schedules. And, I have to say that many of the students have achieved 4th level (senior) through the standard means of bribes to the teachers. This is perfectly acceptable here. It is ingrained, inseparable from the culture. Fortunately, I am not subject to this system because I apparently do not have to give grades.

For the two weeks preceding the beginning of school, I made occasional inquiries as to my schedule. It’s OK. Don’t worry. Next Monday. Or Tomorrow. Or Probably next Friday. The word from the Rector was that I would teach 4th level speaking. Great. Exactly what I would have chosen. Each week, Professor Kamal told me, through an interpreter, The Rector says you will teach 4th level speaking. On the Tuesday before the Wednesday of the first day of classes, I asked again about my schedule and Kamal said they had to learn what I was teaching. I said, The Rector said 4th level speaking. Ah, yes. He said that over the phone but he has to come here and say it. At last the Rector arrived and said in person I would teach 4th level speaking. Good. Can you give me my schedule? Relax! Later we will go down the hall and you will know your schedule. This is the day before school is to begin. Sure enough we went down the hall to see the man who creates the schedule. He works in pencil and paper and creates the schedule for all the teachers and students in my division--English. And, he creates this schedule on a weekly basis and sometimes on a daily basis.

In the two and a half weeks of classes, I have been in three different rooms, had four different schedules, and had my classes cancelled twice, without any notice, because of ‘special’ speakers who came from the capital city to lecture, in English, for three hours. Both times, I began my class on schedule. The first time a student popped in and said they all had to go for an English lecture. OK. The second time, the speaker himself popped in looking for someone to lecture to. I gave him my classroom and students.

But these disorienting events occurred after the opening Day of Knowledge. School began on September 15 with the Day of Knowledge assembly led by the Rector. The Rector belongs to that class of old men often described by a word that personally, I don’t use, but the word rhymes with Bart. The Rector couldn’t decide if he wanted to have the assembly in the open area at our classroom building or in the large auditorium next door to his office, one mile from the classroom building. At least that was the game. Just in case, we were to report to the classroom building and if the rector didn’t show, we would all hustle into taxis, or for those without funds, walk to the auditorium. At 9:00, the word came that we should go to the auditorium and when we arrived, we found the place in full meeting regalia - flowers, chairs for the distinguished whomevers, podium, sound system etc. In other words, there was never any conflict as to the location. It was intended to be held at the auditorium all along. There is talent and knowledge among the teachers of this university but you would never know it from the attitude of the Rector. Two teachers arrived late. Actually, everyone arrived late because of the Bart’s fickleness. But, the Rector broke off his speech to chastise, publicly, over the loud speaker, the two teachers who arrived late: How can you expect our students to arrive on time when even you can’t arrive on time; you should be more responsible!

The Rector opened the assembly with a full minute of silence in remembrance of the former president, Heydar Aliyev. The memory of this man is reaching epic proportions and billboards with his smiling face are everywhere. The bus route to Baku passes through a very small town that has a brand new Heydar Aliyev museum. The stucco is painted a very unsuitable bright yellow; I don’t look for the brightness to remain in this humid, dirty area. There are three billboards of Aliyev in this town,and there are scores in Baku and across the country side.

After the minute of reverence, the sound crew pushed the cassette button to begin the national anthem. The cassette must have been quite old and dirty because from the beginning, the music sagged and lagged. It is a very long song. After about two minutes, the sound crew began exchanging glances. You know how it is when we Americans are listening to our anthem being sung in person, and the tune is getting ready to switch to that impossibly high part? You know we share questioning looks and when the singer deals with the leap by changing keys, we waggle our eyebrows and have a moment of silent sympathy? Well, the looks were flying. The audience was still trying to appear somber, after all, the Rector was at the podium looking somber AND looking out at the audience of teachers, but some of us were losing it. I was losing it. Finally the music reached a stage where it no longer even resembled its original self. The Rector gave an evil look at the crew, and one brave man reached across and abruptly switched the machine off. We were about ten minutes into the assembly and I needed to lean back and have a good laugh but I couldn’t, I really shouldn’t.

After some speech making with the woman next to me trying simultaneous translation in my ear and my finally saying, please don’t bother, I was distracted by the arrival of the press. The press, in this case, was one man with a rumpled suit, a large video camera, and a big behind. He was very late! He hustled to the front, and right right in front of the stage, he launched the camera onto his shoulder, shaped himself into a rigid form, and focused on the Rector. Incredibly, this made the Rector nervous. He previously ran through the words with obvious practice but now he stumbled and referred to his notes and appeared disconcerted.

I swear the mind boggles when I think of watching a video of this loony production. Watching in person with all the pleasurable distractions of cell phones ringing, complaints, grunts and sneezes was barely endurable. To watch a video, taped from the shoulder of a late and penitent pressman simply could not be done. I imagined a small dusty room where the sacred videos were kept and the old Bart casually entering on Saturdays after a week of work, pulling down a black grimy case and slipping it into the VCR. But, save your sympathy. There is no electricity; there will be no rerun.

And speaking of electricity, I am definitely pressing my luck. Happily I woke up early today. I heard the 6:22 call to prayer, and when the electricity came on, I grabbed the laptop and powered up. It is only the two or three hours in the morning that the electricity is strong enough to run the computer or charge my cell phone. Still, am not sure how I will get this into an email but at least I will have a letter to send when I figure out how to send it. I can see now, in the light of the next day, that this letter ends rather abruptly. I wanted to talk about the busses and how many sheep and shepherds we almost ran over and how many ducks we almost ran over and the cars we almost crashed into-I don't include the semi trailer we almost bashed into because that would have been a GENUINE accident--that was almost caused by the bus driver when he leaned over to light a cigarette and check the cassette--whereas the other accidents were almost caused by maniac drivers. I also wanted to talk about the delicious cherry preserves I was enjoying and delicately spit out what I thought was a piece of stem but it turned out to be a complete honey bee, legs and all.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Birthday Cake

My landlady's family lives in the capital, Baku, and when we met here in Lenkoran, they took a liking to me and hoped that I would come to Baku and celebrate my bday at their home. We had a couple weeks to get to "know" each other and they reiterated the invitation so I finally took it as serious. I say "know" because only the 17 year old son speaks English and the rest of us just smile at each other. I took a liking to them also so I went. They made--the mother made--dolma, stuffed grape leaves. delicious. AND a cake with my name on it! Being a mother for many years means that I have made a lot of cakes with other names on them but as far as I recall, this was a first with my name. So, in itself, that was very sweet. Then, when I began to cut it, they sang happy birthday in english. I cried...very embarassing, and it made the son quite sad thinking I was quite sad. So, that was my birthday and very nice it was. A.'s birthday is the 22nd and my friend Elchin and I went to a western bar in Baku and drank a Guiness to celebrate her birthday and that was fun too.

Thursday, there was a party for teachers new to Azerbaijan so went to that. Friday I can't remember. Saturday I shopped then my friend Elchin, the landlady's 17 year old grandson, Kamran, and I went to the cat restaurant. They make a delicious cat. Actually, I insisted that Elchin order the sturgeon kabob so I could toss my share to the two sweet cats who sit on the retaining wall by the restaurant. The first time at that restaurant, I fed the cats and I am not saying the cats are brilliant BUT long before the waiter brought fish and the only dishes on the table were fresh and pickled salads, the cats came and sat on the wall beside our table.

Then, instead of taking the nasty, rotten, terrible, horrible bus home, I took the train and sat in the first class compartment (an unnecessary luxury because they play the TV at record breaking volume in EVERY car). The train takes a little over 6 hours, the bus about 5 1/2 so...The downside is that there is only one train at 8:25 am and one at 11:pm. There are busses of one sort or another about every 20 minutes--as soon as they fill up.

As for current information, I have rec'd mail from grandma, spices from C. and ear plugs from M. Recd all on same day! But let me tell you this little story. When I got home from work, the letter and package from charlie were there. I pay a 60cent delivery charge but since I wasn't there, I went to the post office with the receipt to pay the 60cents. I went to the main post office. Ah, wrong post office. The man, speaking louder and louder, repeated himself motioning for me to go elsewhere. By chance, another employee was passing by so my clerk motioned for me to follow the 2nd clerk. OK. I followed through hallways and down stairs out to a car! He motioned for me to get in. I asked if tomorrow was OK but no. So in I got and we tore off through town and he takes me to a tiny post office near my school. He comes in also, I pay my 60cents (3 thousand Manat, by the way) and as I am walking out, they yell at me. I return to the counter and there is the envelope from Millie! The 2nd clerk has actually brought it in his hand in the car from the other post office. I pay another 60cents (not a delivery fee, I guess). Then I go back to the car, but NO>>>>...no ride back! Too funny. I had to take a taxi back to the town center.

I am thinking of exchanging Azeri/English lessons with a group of 3 girls who have pretty good english but want to improve in order to pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) so they can study in the US. Two have already spent one high school year in Kansas! Now, they want to go to college there. I can not tell you how frustrating my university is, and not only for me but for other teachers. Two of my classes were cancelled last week without notice. When I asked another teacher about it, he said it is not uncommon. OK. The top student in the Top Students Association has been to class once. Of the approximately 12 students who have come to class (I can not comment on the 14 who have never come) about 4 can not answer 3 simple questions in English (and I know what I am doing). Yesterday, in the first half hour, I had 8 interruptions--6 of which were students coming in late. Today I had a class with three students, a fourth one came 20 minute late. He sat there for 5 minutes, received a phone call, then said, "May I go. I must go to my friend's party." The Peace Corps guy said if you get heavy handed and say no one can come in late, the student will just go get some administrator who will come back with him and make you let him in. AND, just for something to ponder, the entire schedule of 4th year students AND teachers is worked out on paper by pencil by one man WEEK BY WEEK!! Bad for the blood pressure. Still, all is well. Went to bazaar today, got fresh veges awaiting and fresh bread from the tandoor oven.