Friday, October 11, 2013

Election Day in Azerbaijan, or How I Learned that my Peace Corps Efforts Here are Actually Really Appreciated...

October 9, 2013, was the day of the Presidential elections in Azerbaijan.  As predicted, the incumbent, Ilham Aliyev, was re-elected to a third term as President, a position that was inherited from his father, Heydar Aliyev, a former Soviet KGB officer, and President of Azerbaijan during most of the 1990's and the early 2000's.

Quite by chance I met some of the international long-term election observers in Mingachevir several weeks ago.  Since they were in need of translators, they asked for my help in recruiting additional translators, who could serve before, during, and after the elections as interpreters for the short-term international observers and for the international journalists expected in country to cover the elections.  I have a number of very accomplished and dedicated professionals in Mingachevir, who over the past several years have regularly attended my advanced English classes, so it was a pleasure and an honor to recommend them.  After the interview process, some of them were chosen to work this past week as translators/interpreters.  I was pleased and proud to be able to offer them an opportunity to have a chance to utilize their greatly improved English skills, albeit for only a short time, since they show such eagerness and willingness to work hard and improve their skills.

Today, one of the international long-term election observers called me to thank me for the efforts I went to in order to help them find appropriate translators.  Then she told me that every single one of the young women I suggested and whom they interviewed for the positions had such glowing things to say about my efforts as a Peace Corps Volunteer--things like my help and my involvement in teaching them has for them been transformative and life-altering!!  Wow, I'm thinking...I am humbled--I did my part, to be sure, but never have I come across a group of young women, who willingly work so hard and go to such great efforts on their own initiative in order to make improvements in their lives.  Today this group of women told me again that they will miss me and they appreciate my efforts. But the best thing they told me is that they intend to continue meeting after I leave Peace Corps Azerbaijan--even without me, they intend to learn, support, train, and help each other.  Wow!!!  Most of their accomplishment has not been due to me, but to their own desire and their industriousness.  And this effort towards sustainability of my work is truly satisfying.

They say Peace Corps is the "toughest job you'll ever love"--tough because it is definitely full of many living and work challenges.  But Peace Corps service is also one of the most rewarding and satisfying of endeavors.  Today turned out to be one of those very satisfying days!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Transportation in Azerbaijan...or how to spend a weekend pretending you are Indiana Jones

Transportation in Azerbaijan:

Azerbaijan is a small country, but roads and other infrastructure issues make transportation from one site to another quite challenging, and even from one part of town or region to another.  Of my local friends and associates, I can think of no one who owns his own car, so reliance on public transportation is the way to go.  In the town where I live, Mingachevir, walking everywhere or taking a local in-town bus is what we do.  A ride costs about $0.25.  There are also taxis, basically operated by someone who has pooled the family’s financial resources and bought a car, often a well-used Russian Lada, on the top of which is loosely placed a plastic "taxi" sign.  They line up on virtually every corner, waiting for someone who needs the $2-$5 ride from one part of town to the other, or to the beach of the Mingachevir Reservoir.  You always negotiate the price before getting into the taxi!
At the bus stop in center of town taxis wait to pick up a fare

The red and blue car are taxis, hoping to get a fare off of the marshrutka (white van)

Blue marshrutka takes passengers all over town for $0.25

Taxis wait on every street corner to pick up a fare.  Rule of thumb:  women never sit in front next to the driver!

Looking at a map of Azerbaijan, we say that the country looks a bit like the palm and fingers of your right hand, with Baku being located on the thumb sticking out into the Caspian Sea, Quba and Qusar on the first finger, Sheki, Qax, Zagatala, and Balakan on the second finger, Tovuz and Gence on the third, and everything else is in the palm of the hand or “down south.” 
Reference Map of Azerbaijan

To get from one major region to another (we say from one finger to another), one must travel first to Baku and then transfer to go elsewhere—by bus!  Only recently have there been some regional airports that have opened sporadic service to Baku, and I know of no one who uses such service—it would be cost-prohibitive for most Azeris, and Peace Corps Volunteers, for sure!  From larger towns, there may be bus service using a large, fairly comfortable and air-conditioned bus; these buses leave on a fairly regular, but rather infrequent, schedule, to Baku.  Most people, however, just show up at the local avtovagzal (bus station) and climb aboard a marshrutka (mini-bus) to where-ever they want to go.  The marshrutkas depart once they are full.  The marshrutka ride to Baku takes about 4 ½ to 5 hours, including a tea break at a local rest stop, and the driver only sells enough tickets for the number of seats.  Marshrutkas are often cramped and very well-used, with narrow, sometimes torn, seats.  If necessary, between towns and villages where the ride may only take an hour or two, people are packed in like sardines, sitting on wooden stools in the narrow aisle, or standing in crowded fashion, leaning for the sake of stability over those lucky enough to be seated.  Sharing the ride with some live chickens that a farmer’s wife wants to bring to market is not uncommon.  And these marshrutkas on local runs between neighboring towns stop to pick up passengers on the side of the road going in the same general direction; they simply flag down the marshrutka, and it always seems possible to squeeze yet one more onto the little bus.
The white marshrutka stops at a rest area to allow passengers to get some tea
at the tea house in background, with a terrace in the foreground;
the restrooms-basically ceramic or concrete holes in the ground-are at the right

Marshrutkas stop at a rest-stop to allow passengers enjoy
a tea break.  Many have hawkers selling snacks, little toys and CD's
for the continuing ride and use the restroom

Riding the marshrutkas around the country has been part of the adventure of living here.  My little granddaughter, Kaitlyn, loves the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, and I have told her that the marshrutka rides here are a little bit like several hours-long Indy rides.  Some marshrutkas have worn-out springs and shock-absorbers, and since the country is trying to modernize its roads, there is construction on many roads, with many stretches still full of pot-holes.  Other roads get washed out on occasion and are simply roads of dirt and rocks.  But this is not the only adventure.  Sometimes fellow passengers or the bus driver want to entertain you with traditional Azeri music, and to make sure you get the full force, blast it very loudly, just like at a wedding, where traditionally the Azeri music is played so loudly, no one can carry on a conversation.  Other adventures include having a driver who loves to play “chicken” with on-coming traffic; the first time I witnessed this, and then the swerving sharply to avoid a head-on crash onto the rock-strewn shoulder, I was scared to death—now it just seems part of the “adventure ride.”  Drivers also smoke, talk on cell-phones, and sometimes argue and gesture with passengers.  No one wears a seat-belt—they don’t exist.  The rides are so bumpy, hot, and crowded that often passengers must carry plastic bags into which they can relieve themselves of their car-sickness.  I have not had that problem personally, but sitting next to one who is violently car-sick…well, not so pleasant.  And then, according to popular opinion, you can get ill from sitting in a draft, so even when the weather is 110 degrees Fahrenheit outside, most passengers would rather ride inside an oven than crack a window for some refreshing breeze.
Views inside the marshrutkas

Seats can be attractively covered--and it
hides rips and tears, too.


One adventure occurred on a ride from Baku this past summer during Ramazan (Ramadan).  A guy was squeezed into the last bench of the marshrutka, and shortly into the ride back to Mingachevir from Baku, a woman started complaining about the guy’s behavior; actually, he kept passing out and falling over on her.  The driver stopped, and removed the guy to the front seat next to himself (not all passengers agreed with this, but the driver is basically the boss of his marshrutka).  At the required rest stop, discussion took place about whether to allow the guy back on; some were laughing that the guy’s ‘travel partner’ seemed to be too much beer.  Well, he resumed the spot on the front bench of the marshrutka, next to the driver, and again he started passing out and slumping over onto the driver’s lap.  Suddenly, the driver smacked the guy, and before you knew it, blood was spewing from the guy’s mouth and nose.  The driver stopped, the guy was removed and water from a near-by swamp was hauled to pour over the guy, in an effort to sober him up and clean him up.  The temperature in the middle of the desert-stretch of dusty road was well over 100.  Some wanted to just leave the guy, but after discussion, it was decided that during Ramadan no one could leave such a man—albeit surely a sick man—stranded by the side of the road.

Some people live a great enough distance from Baku that travel to and from is best for them by night-train.  Some newer ones can be comfortable, but the old Soviet trains are not so much, with lavatories that open straight onto the tracks below, and constant jerking and lunging of the train.  However, you are given a narrow bed in a small compartment (4-6 per compartment), clean sheets, pillow and blanket.  The trains are much slower than the buses, so traveling over-night can take 9 hours to a place that by bus would be perhaps only 5 or 6 hours.

Traditional modes of transportation are also frequently noticed and a charming part of life in the regions of Azerbaijan.

Some modes of transportation also serve as a sort of market--a place to buy what you need...

What will I miss about travel in Azerbaijan?—Well, you may get a more comfortable and certainly a much more spacious seat on the likes of Southwest Airlines, but the idyllic view of flocks of sheep crossing the road and causing traffic to come to a stop or a carefully maneuvered slow-down are some of the memories that will always make me smile.
When the road clogs, cars *queue* up, Azerbaijani style
The cause of many a road clog in Azerbaijan

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Peace Corps Azerbaijan: 10 Years of Service

What is Peace Corps service in Azerbaijan like??  Check out this video created by my fellow PCV Stephan Jackson, AZ9, for a glimpse into some of the activities and things of service we do here!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

German-Azerbaijanis.......and German-Americans.......

 German-Azerbaijanis.......and German-Americans

Being ethnically German-American, I have an innate interest in the fact there are some definite parallels to the stories of the German settlements in Azerbaijan and the German settlements in America.  In the early part of the nineteenth century, political and economic conditions forced many German families to leave their homeland and travel west--to emigrate to North America, or to travel east--to the regions of the then-Russian empire which included the Ukraine and the
In both cases, German immigrants faced many hardships, but banded together in their new settlements to retain their cultural and religious heritage, both in America and in the various regions of the Russian empire.  For decades these ethnic Germans living in foreign lands maintained their own communities, continued to speak their native German language, and conducted their own schools, agricultural enterprises, and communities similarly to what they had known and done in Germany.

(Interestingly, political unrest in the Russian empire half a century later, during the latter years of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth centuries, caused additional hardships for those German immigrants now living and farming in Russian territories.  So, many of those Russian-Germans, especially those from regions of the Ukraine, with its large wheat and grain fields, packed up and emigrated again, this time to the vast stretches of open spaces in the U.S. and Canada, where they could continue their tradition of wheat farming.  Odessa, Washington, a small wheat-farming community in Eastern Washington, my home state, was in fact named after the major city in the Ukraine--Odessa, as a way to entice these new Russian-German settlers to the wheat fields which to this day prosper in Eastern Washington.  This Washington State community has also not forgotten its heritage, and yearly in the fall a Deutschesfest is held in Odessa, Washington to celebrate and commemorate its German roots, albeit via Russia and the Ukraine.,_Washington )

The two World Wars of the twentieth century also impacted, often quite negatively, the German settlements and the German immigrants in America and in Azerbaijan.  My own ancestors suffered discrimination and had to cease speaking in German during the years of World War I and beyond.  Contact with relatives, who remained in Germany, ceased.  And pride in being German-American was destroyed, as it became much more important to show American-pride and assimilation with other ethnic groups in America, and imprudent, sometimes even dangerous, to expose one’s German ethnicity.  Likewise, many schools and institutions of higher-learning eliminated all German courses from their curricula, even though German had long been an important and popular foreign language to study, especially for future natural and social scientists.  The anti-German-American sentiment during these years was exemplified by the hastily passed regulations forbidding the teaching of German in many parts of the United States, including Seattle and Washington State, as thoroughly examined in an award-winning published article by Robert T. Branom,  Against the “Hun”: Anti-Germanism at the Seattle Public Schools and the University of Washington, 1917-1918,

But the fate of the German-Azerbaijani communities was much harsher, during the years leading up to World War II, as the Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin rounded up all who were living in the German settlements and those with German-sounding names, and had them deported to Siberia and Central Asia, i.e. Kazakhstan.  As the fear of Nazi encroachment and battles in Russia raged, it became imperative to Stalin to rid the all-important land with copious oil and gas reserves--Azerbaijan--of its ethnic German citizens, who might in Stalin's view offer aid to the Nazis (who definitely had their eye on Azerbaijan's oil and gas for Nazi war effort), despite the fact that the German-Azerbaijanis had lived more than a century as citizens of the Russian empire and subsequently the Soviet Union.  This fear and paranoia is not unlike what happened to "Japanese-Americans during World War II, who were first held in great suspicion by the American public and then deported almost entirely to internment camps, as the American public feared they were not completely loyal to the United States. The Cold War likewise saw Americans accuse their friends, neighbors, and colleagues as being communist, and therefore unpatriotic, fearing that ideals held by such people would ruin the American way of life." (Branom. "Against the 'Hun' ")

During the round-up and deportation of German-Azerbaijanis, some German-Azerbaijanis left their children behind to be raised by ethnic Azeri neighbors.  And some, like a friend I have made at the German Lutheran Church in Baku, have been allowed to return to Azerbaijan in recent years, having been born in exile.  She, like others, was born of ethnically German parents, exiled to Kazakhstan before the WWII, and where she was subsequently born long after the War.  Still able to speak German, she is proud of her heritage, but bitter over the fact that her parents were forced into exile and never allowed to return.  Her parents had to leave everything behind when they were deported, and lost all that they and their ancestors had spent decades working for and building up.

Today, several of these former German communities in Azerbaijan are undergoing a revitalization program, intended to renovate the buildings and streets, homes and Lutheran churches of these German-Azerbaijanis of long-ago.  One such community today is known as Goygol, but to the Germans of its day it was called Helenendorf; and today's Shamkir was once known to its German settlers as Annenfeld.  The vineyards, surrounding these settlements, which the Germans planted and tended (they were all originally from Wuerttemberg) are still there today, as are the remnants of wineries with such names as Concordia.  

Several weeks ago, a group of members from the Baku German Lutheran Church and I traveled to these communities to meet up with a delegation from Bonn, Germany, which supports the church in Baku.  Coming from Bonn, they were interested in the history of the German settlements in Azerbaijan, and the Azerbaijanis (most of German descent) were likewise interested in learning more about their heritage together with these friends of their congregation from Germany.  We were entertained by the assistant to the Minister in charge of the region, given special tours of the churches and homes, and treated to a typical meal, including wine-tasting from the vineyards planted by the German-Azeri ancestors.  One Azerbaijani on our tour was anxious to see the heritage museum, now housed in the renovated former church, and to locate the street on which her parents used to live in Helenendorf (Goygol) before they were exiled to Kazakhstan.  

German Church in Annenfeld (Shamkir)

Outside renovations taking shape; during Soviet times interiors of
churches often served as sport centers and gymnasiums 

Interior is being renovated in order to create a cultural center  and German heritage museum 

District cultural director explains the renovations to visitors from
Baku German Lutheran Church and guests from Bonn, Germany

The streets and houses are also being renovated to reflect their German past.
Settlers from Germany were from Wuerttenberg, and the little ditch for run-off water is not
unlike the Baechle (little brooks) found in Freiburg

Group from German Lutheran Church in Baku relaxes in Shamkir's lovely park

Park in Shamkir (Annenfeld)

The Minister of Taxes, the government official responsible for this
region, entertains us with a feast for lunch--3 kinds of kabab,
salad, soups, tea and sweets--and of copious amounts of bread. 

Facades of houses are being renovated to
remind visitors and residents of the town's
German heritage
On the road between Shamkir (Annenfeld) and Goygol (Helenendorf)
Pastoral alpine views between Shamkir and Goygol

And we were treated to tea and cakes in
an old wine-cellar, turned restaurant, and
offered wine-tasting

German-style street scene in Goygol (Helenendorf)
Off in the distance, Narorno-Karabagh--bitterly disputed lands, technically Azerbaijani territory, but occupied by Azeri arch-enemy, neighboring Armenia
Inside the Goygol home of Victor Klein, last surviving descendant of German  settlers
German Lutheran Church in Goygol,
housing a German-heritage museum
Helenendorf's Town Hall (Rathaus)
Following WWII, German prisoners-of-war on Soviet soil were detained and used as laborers to rebuild parts of the Soviet Union, including Azerbaijan.  Towns, including Mingachevir, where I live, were built by German prisoners-of-war, as well as the dam and power plant on the Kur River, Mingachevir.  These cemetery views in Goygol show the graves of German prisoners-of-war, those who died here, still in captivity long after the end of the war, as well as the graves of the German settlers of Helenendorf.

"Here rest the prisoners of war--victims of the Second World War...may God have mercy on them and all victims of war"

The German prisoner-of-war graves join the graves of the German Christian settlers who for more than a century lived and worked throughout this region.
In years past, after the German settlers had been deported to Central Asia and Siberia, the German cemetery was vandalized by local Azeris, thinking that the Christian graves were perhaps Orthodox Armenian (their arch-enemies), not realizing nor being able to discern that they were the graves of German Lutherans
Nagarno-Karabagh is off in the distance...the region occupied by Armenia, but technically part of Azerbaijan

The overnight Night Train to and from Baku was in and of itself an *experience*