This place is so weird, I can go from being so angry I can’t see straight to having a great time wrestling with my 11-year-old host brother.
I just laughed so hard I cried and that came an hour after actual crying.
The closer I get to leaving, the more days I have like this.  But it’s totally worth it.

Pictures of Mothers

Happy Mother’s Day to all of the wonderful mothers in my life!  Happy Mother’s Day to my mom, who has been unrelentingly supportive of everything I do.  I am getting through a tough time at site (read my last post) because of her past teachings and current guidance. Thank you.  I love you.

So, to commemorate the day, here are some pictures of animal mothers with their babies (read: lots of pictures of cows)!

I wonder what she’s saying?

I’d like to lay in the sun with my mom.

Uh. No caption.

I don’t really have my mom’s coloring, either.

See the resemblance?

It takes a village heard.

She pecks at your hand if you try to pick up the chicks.

Man, I love water buffalo.


Earthquakes and Subsidies

This week has been incredibly hard.  On Monday, May 7, my region of Zaqatala was hit with a 5.6 earthquake, followed all day by a series of aftershocks and another (possible) 5.4 earthquake.

As a daughter of California and a person who studied a bit of physical geography, I thought I knew how to handle myself in a quake.  Turns out, I get scared, nervous, and stressed, just like every Azerbaijani around me.  At first, I was shocked people kept running into the yard when the shaking started.  Why weren’t they ducking and covering?!  Why didn’t they care about wearing shoes and not stepping on glass?!  But, as the day wore on, I found myself jumping and running outside.  The buildings here weren’t built to shake.  They crack and crumble.

The series of shakes has affected life here in many of the ways you would expect, but not that I remember from few earthquakes I experienced as a child.  I don’t remember people being so afraid they slept in their yards during a rain storm.  I don’t remember schools being shut down because walls had fallen down.  I don’t remember sports practices stopping because parents didn’t want their children to leave their homes.

I don’t remember every single coversation I had afterwards being about the earthquake, its effects, and people’s fears.

I don’t remember being afraid of my wall falling on me, and I’d never realized I would grab my computer before my passport (bad choice, I know.)


This is the back of my house and water tank BEFORE the earthquake. The wall’s still there now, just a bit… crooked.  We’ve also added more supports.

After the first earthquake, it was hard to get in touch with volunteers and the Peace Corps office.  Cell service was awful (shockingly, however, I never lost electricity or Internet.)  Most of my stress on the earthquake day was caused by not being able to contact people.  Throughout the day, we heard a lot of rumors about damage in the region, schools falling down, houses completely collapsing, and three of the villages we kept hearing about are homes to volunteers.  Everyone was trying to contact their loved ones, and our cell towers just couldn’t handle the stress.

My village was hit pretty hard.  We have some people living in tents in school yards and at my work.  The biggest school, already not in great shape, has been closed for the time being.   I keep thinking how lucky we are that we don’t have gas or water lines to worry about.  Never before have I preferred my wood stove to a gas line.

After the crack in my wall opened up a bit, I started to quietly look for other housing and realized that every home has some damage.  In Danachi, the more expensive homes have multiple floors and those ended up being the worst-off.  I’ve moved out of my room, and consider myself lucky.  In one village, a volunteer’s family has been living next to their barn in an open space covered with sheets.  Another volunteer shouldn’t go back into her home at all.  She’s now living with her whole host family at the grandfather’s house.

Logically, I know this earthquake is on a different scale than the 1994 Northridge earthquake (one of the most costly natural disasters in American history.)  But this one I feel.  This one has exhausted me.  I spend my time either nervous and upset or angry.  When something is bad, I think it’ll be fine once we get past this earthquake nonsense.  Then I realize we won’t be getting past it for a long time.  People are scared.  They haven’t gotten any less scared in the past few days.  This will be one of the defining features of my service, and every project I do now will be done with a post-quake mentality.

Two days after the earthquake, President Ilham Aliyev was in Zaqatala, promising government subsidies of 20 million manat to the people of Zaqatala to rebuild.  Government representatives have been in the village and at my work, making records of homes that will receive money.  Not every house is getting government money, however.  Houses that aren’t safe to live in but just need a few repairs have to be taken care of by the family.  Houses that can’t be lived in at all are being subsidized.

And today, I received a text message from my cell phone company, telling me I’m getting 5 manat worth of credit.  All for being in the earthquake zone.

This was the first news report on Azeri television about the earthquake.  It’s very dramatic.

This is the best reporting of the earthquakes.  It’s got nice maps.

A water buffalo and a puppy walk into a barn…

I wanna go for a ride, too

They travel together.

The best punch-line gets a prize!  I’ll send you something fun from Azerbaijan!

A Great Day

There are some days here that are good, where language feels comfortable, work productive, and relationships healthy.  There are other days here where so many things fall into place, where everything that happens is perfectly right, and where you know great things are going to happen.

I’ve had a few great days in Azerbaijan.  The first one left me feeling so good I let a poor, motherless kitten meow me into taking it home (it ran away a week later).  My last great day was yesterday, and I totally wasn’t expecting it as I pulled myself out of bed into the freezing morning.

There are three types of volunteers in Azerbaijan: teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL), youth development (YD), and community economic development (CED).  Each sector has relationships with corresponding ministries in the Azerbaijani government.  I was woken Saturday morning by a call from the local representative of the Ministry of Economic Development, a friendly man who had come out to the village a couple of times to check out the work I was doing.  During his call he asked what my plans were for the day and said he wanted to meet.  I (grudgingly) admitted I had club in the city and could meet after.

When he came to pick me up a few hours later, I was already satisfied with the day.  The club I have Saturday afternoons is one of my favorites so far.  It’s for older girls, and they’re coming from all over the region, not just the city.  I struggle through explaining English grammar, but I love our discussions and playing games.

So, already feeling happy, I hopped into an incredibly nice car with this guy and his brother-in-law, another well-connected guy who worked for some department I’d never heard of (although neither of them spoke any English).  They whisked me to the brother-in-law’s house, where I ended up being given the full guesting treatment with their family (wasn’t expecting that, I kinda just thought we’d touch base and that’d be it.)

We had a great time!  My language felt PERFECT! They wanted to talk politics (which, technically, PCVs aren’t supposed to do)! The bro-in-law will help my municipality with a project we’re having tons of problems getting off the ground!  They said they’d help me get the olympic complex in town for softball in the summer! And, best of all, I was able to talk to them about my proposal for my master’s degree project.  They immediately offered to take me around the next weekend to introduce me to some of the most important people in Zaqatala, all of whom I am desperate to meet for the project, but had no idea how to approach alone.

I was astonished how easily they were agreeing to things I was asking for, and I’m hoping projects will actually proceed from here.  I’m hoping they will, because the family invited me and all of the Americans in Zaqatala over to their home any time we want, and while blanket invitations are rather normal in this country, we’ve already made plans for next Saturday at 1:30.

I had a great afternoon, and it was followed by a great evening when some of my totally happy, smart, and inspiring sitemates came over for white Russians, pad thai with tofu, the BEST Asian cabbage salad I’ve ever had, and wonderful conversation.  Three of the women who came over are new PCVs, and the man who came is an AZ 7 who extended a year.  Every time I see them, I feel incredibly lucky to have such great sitemates, and I wonder if there’s something in the Zaqatala water that affects how awesome the PCVs here are.

I’m still coming off of the high that was my great day yesterday.  I am so looking forward to this week, and the work I get to do.  I love having things to do with great people.

Finally, because no blog post is great without pictures:

The kitten that convinced me to take it home and ran away after a week.

Our village's brand-new gym. I can't wait to start teaching classes in there!

Snow and Sheep

Happy Groundhog’s Day!  Happy birthday, Dad!

I guess it’s appropriate I’m doing a blog about the stresses of winter today, since we we still have six weeks left to endure.  I’ve never before really emotionally understood the importance of spring holidays, but I gotta say, I’m really looking forward to the end of winter, and with it my parents’ arrival in Azerbaijan!

Our first bad snow this season was on Thanksgiving, and that SHUT DOWN roads, trains, and cities.  Since then, in Zaqatala we’ve had cycles of snow falls that shut roads and schools down, and they eventually melt into giant mud pits (one of which I might have fallen into while on my way to the toilet), which then freeze into ice during incredibly cold nights.

Except for the canceling of school, life pretty much seems to keep going during the snow.  I go into work, farmers farm, and sheep give birth.

This afternoon (while it was snowing), I had just arrived at my friend’s place when her father walked into the house with a sack slung over his shoulder.  After getting a box and covering its bottom with a towel, he opened the sack to reveal two squirming lambs.  They were one hour old, and had been taken away from the flock because it was so cold their mother wasn’t giving milk.  They were twins, filthy, and shaking like crazy.  The boy was so much bigger than the girl, I didn’t believe it was a newborn and while the girl lay down in the box, her brother stomped all over her checking out his surroundings and baaing like crazy. They seemed to be okay with the cow’s milk they were given with a bottle, but would not stop licking the box.  I’m not sure what the ramifications of feeding sheep cow’s milk are, but I’d love it if a biologist could let me know.

I’m really sorry I didn’t have my camera today.  Those sheep were adorable.  I do, however, have a decent picture of my yard in the snow:

I hope you all are having a better time getting through winter than I am.  Got any snow?  What are your tips for living in the cold?  I could use some help!

13 Months in Review

I’ve been at site about 13 months now, and in country over 15 months.  I found this “PC Roundup” on the blog from a volunteer in Paraguay, and I thought it was a good way to reflect on the last year.  If there’s anything else you’d like to know about, hit me up!

Moment that made me rethink dairy: Nothing yet!  I really enjoy the dairy here.  I get fresh milk from my hostmom’s cow (we gotta boil it first, though), and I really like the sour yogurt, called gatig.

What reminds me most that I’m in Azerbaijan: Getting stared at and having people ask me if I’m a tourist, even while we’re speaking Azerbaijani.  One time, I was walking around the hospital trying to find my host sister who had just had a baby, and the hospital administrator told people I’m a tourist.  Yes, because tourists go to hospitals to visit new mothers.

Most surprisingly tasty food: The fresh food here is so delicious.  I’ve had the best tomatoes and peaches of my life!

Favorite thing to find being recycled by other volunteers who have recently returned from the states or had a friend come visit: Spices, although they’re not recycled so much as left behind.

Most entertaining adventure: I’m not sure if this is the most entertaining thing that’s happened to me or just on my mind right now, but after a meeting in Baku, I went out with three of my friends.  We stayed out pretty late (it might have been 3 am when we started to make our way back), and although finding a taxi isn’t hard, we didn’t want to pay what the drivers were asking.  While we ambled across a street, a driver saw us, stopped his car in the middle of an intersection, and waved us over.  I told him where we wanted to go and that we would pay 5 manat.  He was cool with that.  Immediately, it became apparent he had no idea where he was going.  We were shocked!  This is Baku!  We were going to the intersection of two of the largest streets!  As we drove around, he occasionally pulled over to ask other drivers how to get to our intersection.  He also started showing us pictures of him boxing.  He wasn’t a taxi driver, he told us, but an athlete, and he needed 20 manat to buy vitamins (I’m not sure if that really means steroids.)  Eventually, we got to our location, thanks to my friends, who somehow knew how to get around.  I, I’m sad to admit, was no help at all.  As good as I think I am with directions, Baku still confuses me.

Moment that made me realize that no bug experience could ever get much worse: Using my outhouse at night in the middle of summer and getting bit by mosquitoes in certain places…

Favorite thing to do on vacation: Go to Tbilisi, drink good wine, and eat foods with mushrooms.

Moment that made me stop and say, “Where am I?”: Going with my host sisters one Friday evening to their plot on the edge of the village and hoeing lines for potatoes.  Also, not showering for 14 days (my record!)

Most shocking information I have given to an Azerbaijani: That not everyone in America believes in God, and that gay people exist.

Most entertaining question asked by an Azerbaijani: How much money do people get from the government when they have a baby?  And how much do you have to pay to get a job?

Something I would never have done if I were not living here: Eaten meat.  When I first lived with host families, I tried what they served me.  It was hard, but sometimes, there were no other options.  As I really don’t find meat tasty, I did my best to avoid chunks of anything.  There was one time, however, when I ate some pretty interesting stuff.  I’d only been in country a few weeks and people were celebrating Gorban Holiday, in which they sacrifice a sheep to honor Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God.  My family gave away most of the meat, but kept some of the organs for themselves.  Although I tried to refuse the meat, my host mom kept saying, “It’s sacrificed meat.  It’s sacrificed meat.”  I ate it.  It had tubes and stuff coming out it if.  Interesting experience.

Now that I’m living by myself and have the language to express why I don’t want to eat meat while not offending anyone, I’ve gone back to being a vegetarian.  It’s actually become much easier.  I visit with my friend and her mom a lot, and the last time I was there, her mom joked to me that I am a cheap guest because I eat no meat.

Favorite new culinary skill: I’m getting much better at making soups.  I love me some soup.

Funniest Azerbaijani word learned: “Avam.”  It’s not funny, but it means “uneducated” or “naive.”  I’ve had people use it to describe me since I’ve been living in the village for over a year.

Most uncomfortable moment at work: When my coworker told me he was very dark, so he’s President Obama’s brother, which lead to people using the “n”word, which lead to me trying to explain why it’s not okay to use that word, which lead to them saying it over and over.

Favorite American topic that Azerbaijanis like to talk to me about: President Obama.

Longest running joke in my host-family: That my host sister named her baby after me.  My name is Jane Renahan and the baby’s name is Jahan (this isn’t true.  The baby’s dad’s name is Jahangir, and Jahan is the feminine of that.)

Moment that almost gave me a heart attack: Watching one of my girls get hit in the nose with a softball.

Strangest thing I have seen being sold on a city bus: Cookbooks.  I don’t get this at all.

Hottest day: I think it got up to 105 last summer, but I’m not sure ’cause no one in the village takes readings.

Things that make me feel like a lot tougher than I am: Yard work and lighting my wood stove every night.

Favorite book read at site: Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell.

Funniest cultural thing in general: Girls and women in the village seem to hate cats and be deathly afraid of cows and dogs.  The dogs I get, they’re wild animals who just kinda roam around barking.  But cows?  Each family has at least two cows, and people grow up taking care of them.  Yet, every time I go walking with a group of girls, they run awayfrom the cows.  Or, they put me between them and the cows.  ‘Cause, yeah, I’ll save you!

I bet in a year, these sheep will be sacrificed for Gurban Holiday. Right now, though, they're pretty cute, right?