Another adventure: after rising early, and saying fond farewells to my Masazir family, Christine and Rachel—my new sitemates--and I piled into the not-all-that-large taxi, filled to the gills (and more strapped on the roof) with all our stuff—clothes and supplies for the next two years, plus the now obligatory stacks of books and manuals, water-filters, mosquito nets (parts of Azerbaijan are in malaria areas), Brown Monsters (Peace Corps-issued sleeping bags)—and we headed off to Mingeçəvir, our permanent service site. It was a trick for the driver and my host father to re-arrange all the luggage, etc. in the trunk and on the roof of the car in the dark—thank goodness my family was able to supply some twine to get some of the bags strapped onto the car. On the way, we soon hit solid fog along the desolate stretch of plains which makes up part of central Azerbaijan—reminded me of central California in the winter months. This did not stop the drivers, though, from pulling out to pass the ubiquitous slow-moving trucks and farm vehicles. The fog was freezing and chunks of ice froze to my duffel bag and sleeping bag, which were strapped onto the roof. Fortunately our driver did not take too many chances passing in the fog like so many of the other drivers were doing, which might have resulted in hitting the on-coming traffic head-on; instead our driver passed on the right, on the dirt and gravel shoulder. This still brought many close calls, like almost hitting some people waiting in the fog by the side of the road for a marshrutka, or almost sliding into the ditch when the shoulder abruptly ended, because in the fog it was not easy to judge. These were just a few excitements—the big one came when the taxi broke down in the town of Ucar! The driver pulled into the rest-stop auto-repair shop near the bus station. While we waited in the bus station, the car was worked on and eventually fixed. An hour later, we were back on the road, but the driver missed the first entrance into Mingeçəvir. No worries, he stopped to ask three different people, admitted he’d never been to Ming before, but he finally found the right way to Rachel and Christine’s waiting host families, where their bags and belongings were transferred into their respective waiting cars. A little later, we were in the center of town by the bazaar, where we picked up Karim, who escorted us to my new host family, a couple in their thirties with two children, Farida, a studious little nine-year-old girl, and Ibrahim, a charming 7-year-old boy. They have a very large, beautiful home, with a large garden full of many fruit trees (and chickens); the lower level has the living room and what could be a small apartment—a large bedroom, a small kitchen (but the gas is not hooked up) and a multipurpose room. The large bedroom is mine; it has two beds and a couch, but no dresser or closet, so I decided to use one of the beds as a ward-robe of sorts, and now my clothes are spread out over it. Tomorrow I will see about getting a table to hold all my books and other things. The home is very comfortable, AND it has central heating—my room is warm and cozy. The family is darling and very hospitable—it’s going to be great here!
Still basking over the thrill of the official Swearing-In Ceremony, which took place Thursday at the Europa Hotel in Baku. What an elegant event, with comments by the U.S. Ambassador, government officials from the Ministries of Education, Business, and Youth and Sport, and a wonderful speech in both English and Azerbaijani by my friend Leah, one of the 5 others from my language class. Finally we all rose, raised our right hands, and with the Ambassador leading us we swore to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, and protect it from all enemies, both foreign and domestic. The last time I took the same oath (decades ago), I was embarking on my teaching career at Munich American High School, but this time it was so emotionally moving for me, that I could have teared up. What a proud moment to have come so far after many months of applying for, planning for, training for, and now, more than a year later, finally becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer—what an honor!
Monday I start at the University. Some students already called and messaged me several weeks ago, welcoming me and letting me know how happy they are that I am coming. It’s a good feeling to be so welcomed, knowing that one’s efforts are so greatly appreciated. It makes everything that it took to get this far seem so worth-while. I know what it is like to work long and hard and have the efforts unappreciated, even rejected, despised and betrayed, so this endeavor is for me personally just that much more rewarding. But like the Kiwanis principals of giving primacy to spiritual and human values above material values, so it is that the best part of this undertaking is that it is greater than anything I could personally accomplish—being in the Peace Corps contributes to the betterment of so many things, to help others in a technical manner, to build bridges of understanding between the citizens of our nation and other nations, to contribute truly as the name implies—to peace. Hopefully, inshallah—God willing, I will do this noble cause some justice.
As a final farewell, my home in Masazir once again lost its electricity and heat during the last couple of days I was there, as well as water, too—again, no shower. My Masazir host family sure knows how to roll with the punches, though, and kiddingly told me that only in Masazir would I have these ‘troubles’: since one of the largest hydro-electric dams in this part of the world is in Ming, I should need not worry about running out of either water or electricity, they told me. Actually, much can be learned about the important, and not-so-important, things in life from my Masazir host family. Naturally it is unpleasant for them, too, when these conveniences, which we in America take so much for granted, are lost; but my Masazir host family has a method for coping with each of them—they are ready with the candles and kerosene lamps, so we can keep on studying; there’s the wood for the little stove for some warmth; there are neighbors, from whom you can borrow a bucket of water; there’s always food that can be eaten without cooking; and there are games to be played and songs to be sung and traditional dances to be practiced in the little hall-way, while waiting for these amenities to return. Some of my favorite memories now are how I learned to do without, and came to admire and have fun with the family for whom this is just another minor fact of life. People who are resilient like this are models for resourcefulness, skill, practicality, and most of all for being examples of how families stick together, help each other, for the betterment of all. For a farewell meal, the mom in my host family asked to borrow my hand-held can-opener, which is part of the supplies Peace Corps recommends you bring from America; this reminded me, that absolutely everything we eat here is fresh; not a single canned or packaged food is in her house. The only canned things we eat are the canned fruits, vegetables, and pickles, which she herself preserves. Even her noodles are always home-made. No foods loaded with preservatives here! If you don’t grow it yourself, or buy it in the bazaar (market) fresh from the farmer, it just doesn’t show up on the average Azerbaijani table. Even the chickens, like our Thanksgiving turkey, are often bought live, then slaughtered, plucked and cooked—can’t get much fresher!