I spent week before last with a Peace Corps Volunteer who has already been 2 years in the field and is extending for another half a year at her site in the town of Mingechevir (Mingəçevir), a nice place, located on a lake (reservoir) near the foothills of the Caucusus Mountains. I had a great time, taught a number of classes, including at the teachers’ university, and met wonderful people. The PCV’s counterpart, an awesome Azerbaijani English teacher, invited us to her home to have meals with her family…what a treat, and what a great person she is. She is now exclusively an English teacher, but she started her career as a German teacher—right from the start we had something in common. I helped her briefly with an online education course she is taking from the University of Oregon (and I showed her some of my photos of Oregon on my laptop), and since she had internet in her home, it allowed me to skype Mark, Jonny, Christina and Robby, the day before Dadd’s birthday—meant a lot to us! And I enjoyed so much being with her, her family, and the PCV I visited.
The trip in the marshrutka getting there reminded me of some old Indiana Jones’ movies—our driver, eager to make time, raced his well-worn vehicle over rough roads with our bags squished in and around us; but hanging on for dear life truly happened most every time he passed another car, truck or bus, in an attempt at playing chicken with the on-coming traffic. Defensive driving here is unknown, since I think it would show that the driver was too faint-hearted. In addition, most bus and marshrutka drivers here think nothing of lighting up their cigarettes and conversing on their cell phones, while driving! Anyway, several close-calls, and 4 and ½ hours later we were in the town of Mingechevir (Mingəçevir), built by German POW’s after WWII. The city is laid out like many of the residential areas of German towns rebuilt after the War, so it had a familiar feel to me. We did our shopping at the local bazaar (market) for our food, and I got to practice my long-to-be proficient Azerbaijani skills, but I must admit, I am making some progress (I can make myself somewhat understood!). One nice custom here is to show hospitality to guests and foreigners. Every time I went to buy something, the seller or shop-keeper would lower the price, for me, the “honored guest.” This has happened not just at the bazaar, but also souvenirs shops, and even a hard-ware store. People are exceptionally gracious here.
The school in Mingechevir where my Peace Corps host does most of her teaching is interesting, since she established an English resource room for all of the English teachers to be able to use. This room is located, however, on the second floor of the school, in a part of the building which is used to house IDP families (Internally Displaced People). Since 1994 there has been a precarious cease-fire between Azerbaijan and Armenia for territory claimed by Azerbaijan, within its boundaries, but now occupied by Armenian forces, since most inhabitants are ethnically Armenian, having displaced the Azerbaijanis. There are frequent skirmishes, and saber-rattling, and those Azerbaijanis who are basically now refugees inside their own country are known as IDP’s—the largest percentage of IDP’s anywhere in the world is here in Azerbaijan. This school in Mingechevir has housed these families for more than 20 years, and they basically live in the hall-ways and curtained-off areas of the school building. It’s strange to walk down the hall to the English resource room and to pass by these displaced people’s kitchens and living quarters—trying to make do, as best they can. The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan is very sensitive and evokes strong passions. The day I visited the school in Mingechevir was the day before Azerbaijani Independence Day. We were treated to a very patriotic school assembly full of passionate speeches of nationalistic pride, patriotic and militaristic poems and songs, as well as national dances. Everything was well-memorized and enthusiastically performed—it was indeed impressive. The flag-waving and nationalistic pride could not help but reach overtones denouncing Armenia, something which is also graphically depicted and portrayed in school text books, including even the English text books.
Upon our return to Masazir, our training town outside of Baku (which is actually Baki in Azerbaijani—Baku is the Russian word for the capital city), we got ready for our day outing to Gobustan. The Peace Corps arranged for all 44 trainees and many of the local staff to take a ‘cultural day’ to visit the petroglyphs of Gobustan, about 50 km south of Baki, a UNESCO world cultural heritage site. These rock carvings of animals, some of which are now extinct, and ancient hunters, sailors, and women, are some of the oldest such rock carvings in the world. Some archeologists believe that ancient Biblical regions can be traced to modern day Azerbaijan. I’ve got plenty of photos of carvings inside caves surrounded by arid, rocky desert, but which eons ago was lush, verdant, and even at times below the sea. Equally fascinating were the near-by mud volcanoes. These small hills of cool, bubbling mud were pretty funny looking, as were all of us, slipping and sliding around on the slopes of these mud hills. Indeed, I was the first of many, who slipped, got covered in mud, and even almost stuck!
We have yet to make it into Baki, since it is off-limits to us for safety and security reasons until we finish training, which is now almost half-finished. In several weeks, however, our trainers will take us on an escorted visit; can’t wait, because there are many historical and interesting sights to see there. But first come many more days of technical training and hours and hours of language lessons and practice. It is a lot of work, a lot of studying, and yet, very rewarding, too.