Learning to take my time in Azerbaijan

New Year’s Tree in Yevlakh. Santa Claus comes to Azerbaijan on New Year’s Eve! (photos by Rebecca Rowe)

Making cookies or other treats is quite common for me as I simply have a difficult time going anywhere without some sort of gift in my hands. Here I made some, let me say, delicious chocolate chip cookies for a birthday present.

A Soviet-era Vladimir Lenin statue was cut into pieces and left in a Yevlakh junkyard.

A student group with whom I work; originally I had taken the photo of each student this autumn so that I could quickly learn each of their names.

Rebecca Rowe
Peace Corps, Azerbaijan

Dear friends and family: I thought I would take the opportunity and send a quick update regarding my wellbeing. Everything is fine.

I had a bout of mononucleosis from late November through December which limited my levels of energy, but, of course, I persevered. The persistent feeling of having been hit by a bus and constantly needing sleep was – as those of you who know me can imagine – both unfamiliar and unwelcome. I’m glad that my health is much improved now.

If you’re wondering how I’m doing with the citizens of Yevlach, the constant question I hear – at least a couple times each day – is “Why don‘t you come to us?” Although I strive to visit people often and frequently, it is never enough. They very much enjoy feeding me and having me over as a guest.

I was recently asked to help out in a teacher’s classes at School #7 here in Yevlakh for the day. However, the bazaar that takes place in the teacher’s room at the school before classtime turned out to have precedence. A company had taken it over to sell its products, and was doing so at leisure.

A note about me: the idea of being late makes me unable to breathe (yes, I do at times have a slightly rigid personality) and this is a trait not shared by many others in Yevlakh.

And, after about 25 additional minutes of studying the goods and discussing prices – taking us more than halfway through the period – we proceeded to class.

Taking time – for others and myself

I value the relationships I have formed throughout the Yevlakh community – and the forget-the-clock patience I’ve had to learn. My day is always adjusted with the realization that walking into any shop to make a purchase will probably take a half-hour longer than you’d usually expect.

But that time I might have thought of as “lost” from a jam-packed schedule back in the U.S. can yield invaluable insights.

I bought a new cell phone case this past Sunday and met a man curious about comparisions of life in the U.S. and Azerbaijan. He volunteered a breakdown based on his understanding of freer Western gender roles and commented on how it is not possible in his culture for a man and a woman to be friends, walk together, for women to go to a restaurant and other factors. It’s not my role as a Peace Corps volunteer to offer judgement on either culture, but I can tell people about my own experiences and the simple response that I miss my family and my friends in the U.S.

It’s a balancing act. I know I am having an impact upon the community; that is not a question. I know, as well, that I cannot succumb to every request put upon me for my personal sanity is important (I guess) too! In the evenings I am currently teaching an English class for business professionals. It is actually an endeavor I have enjoyed greatly.

Members of the class primarily work at banks, in the government, and as engineers and are men and women in their 20s and 30s. There are always standouts in the three different groups I am teaching who really want to learn. Their persistence and enthusiasm is very motivating. When I look back, it’s great to know that all the hours I put in at home on my computer developing different lessons, practice exercises and other learning aids are well used by these people.

My service: ‘not normal’

And a final quick short story regarding my evening adult English education course (we’re almost to the point in at least one class where I could label it as a conversation club — almost.) A Saturday about two weeks ago “Mr. Ramil” at the Yevlakh “Communication House” which houses the main city post office, electric companies and other utilities like phone and internet services, called me into his office. Speaking primarily in Azerbaijani, though inserting English here and there, Mr. Ramil told me, “This is not normal.”

I loved that the sentence was in English. I’m not sure where he learned the word “normal,” but it was used correctly and effectively.

What he was saying is that it’s not considered “normal” to volunteer to teach others for free. People do not commonly do anything for those outside the family here in Azerbaijan “pulsuz” (without money) and, saying again, “This is not normal,” Mr. Ramil launched into an Azerbaijani explanation of why I should be paid for the classes.

The concept of a volunteer is not well understood, and it’s actually acommon occurrence here in Yevlakh for people to try to give me money. I always politely refuse (being thankful I possess the necessary language skills to move forward through this conversation in a culturally-appropriate manner) but citizens here often show concern about my financial wellbeing.

Recently Azerbaijan marked “Youth Day” and at an evening ceremony (of which I was completely unaware until 10 minutes before it happened – yet more need for flexibility) I was presented a card in an envelope.

Fortunately I waited to open it until I got home (it’s culturally inappropriate to open gifts in the presence of other people) because the card contained money.

I’ll have to figure out to whom I can speak regarding the return of the money. I’ll again have to explain the role of the Peace Corps in taking care of my needs with a stipend, because seeing me “working” teaching classes but knowing the students aren’t paying me seems to lend people the impression I’m living on air alone.

Well, so much for being a “short” update. I could, of course, type much more and have, fortunately and unfortunately, never been someone for just a few words. I am thankful that each day is interesting. There are positive and negative aspects, and challenging and easy tasks, but that is life, right?

– Rebecca Rowe is a former Lillie Suburban Newspapers intern. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia and is a past Athena Award winner at Mounds View High School.


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