October 11, 2008


Picture of JFK spotted at a bar behind the hotel where we had Staging.

The following is a quick write up on whats been going on the last couple weeks. I didnt have time to write as it happened so this was all written up spur of the moment when I had a free hour the other day. Also there is considerable disagreement about what the blog policy is. Some staff saying everything must be pre-approved(e.g. censored) or password locked while other staff and volunteers saying to use discretion. Until this is settled and I have more time and better access to the net this is the last of my writings here ----

PS In a couple hours I leave for "site visit", a visit to the site(home/working community) of a PC Volunteer who has been here for a bit over a year. Im going to the opposite side of the country to a place thats usually spelled 'Ganja'.

cut & paste from before, excuse the bad spelling, grammer, sloppiness, etc

TRAVELING - Chinga tu madre Gino-san

Not wanting to get the 6:20 flight out of MSP to Philadelphia for the training that started at 14:00 I sweet talked the PC travel agency into flying me in a day early and putting me up in a room at our training hotel.

Turned out it wasn’t so difficult to sweet talk her as it was the cheaper option anyhow. The evening before flying out was occupied with eating the first American-style, greasy, cheesy pizza I had had in some years. Damn good stuff. Then a marathon packing session. Space wasn’t a problem, I had room

to spare. Unfortunately I was going about 30lbs over the weight limit in one bag and only 10lbs under in the other. I had to drop a few hundred

DVDs, my spare laptop, and a bunch of clothes. Finally got both bags within 1lbs of the 100lbs total limit plus my carry-on(which was stuffed) and a

"personal item" containing my new laptop and a couple of hard drives.

Despite all the DVDs I had to drop I’ve still got a few hundred movies/tv shows on DVDs and on the hard drives; including a load of Japanese movies(gotta keep in practice), almost all of the MST3K flicks(ye who inherited what I left behind best be taking good care of them), zombie and other cheezy-horror movies to be hell, and other assorted movies I either really like or haven’t watched yet. Clothes wise I’m still horribly over packed but I hate clothes shopping (I cant be trusted to buy good clothes) so I hope what I brought will cover me for the interim.

For host-family presents I’ve brought American flag sandal/baseball cap sets, allot of candy for the kiddies(and for me to, black jelly beans and tootsie rolls tend to be rare outside N. America), and a few led keychain flashlights for those midnite runs to the outhouse.

There was an accident on the interstate backing traffic up for almost an hour but we made it to the airport with just the right amount of time to get through

check-in, security and everything. They said my backpack that I’ve used on about 20 flights was oversized but nobody said anything about being over weight.

Got through without any trouble though.

Arrived in Philly, got my bags and went out to wait for the airport bus to the Sheraton. Should have called the hotel ahead of time rather than assuming

that Sheraton would have a bus. The Sheraton bus that did come told me that I needed the other Sheraton bus. The other Sheraton bus that came told me I had to

wait for the Lady Liberty bus. No worries, I thought. I had just discovered my mp3 player had a poker game on it and was learning the ropes of Texas Hold'em.

After an hour of waiting a self described "greyhair"(experienced) driver noticed me and set me straight. Turns out you have to request this particular bus at

the desk in the baggage claim area....5minutes later I was on the road to my hotel. Seems the bus driver had been warned about the flood of PC people coming

because as soon as he saw my bags he asked in a thick Philly accent "Hey, youse shippin out wis de Peace Coa?".

Checked in, got directions to the Liberty Bill and started walking. Philly is a pretty nice city. Fairly clean, people are nice enough, the weather was good

that day. There are lots of lunch trucks selling everything from cheese steaks and burgers, to kielbasa and wieners, to soul food, fried chicken dinners and

jerk chicken(never got around to trying the jerk chicken sadly). Another observation is that they’re big on murals in Philly. Murals everywhere. Murals of

the founding fathers, of brotherly love, of coffee house founders, of all sorts of stuff. I was also very surprised by the number of Japanese restaurants.

During my walk I saw a cop and decided to ask her for directions to the Liberty Bell. Her response, "What’s the address?". Not a question I was expecting and my response was "The Liberty Bell, you know, the bell with the crack in it. Somewhere around Liberty Square I guess.". "Yeah I know the one.

Liberty Square is over that way I think." she said pointing off in the direction I had been going anyhow.

Well, I saw the Liberty Bell from outside the building as it was after 6pm by then. French tourists all over the place. You can only see the back

of the bell from outside so I didn’t get to see the crack. Oh well, its not the Taj Mahal or the Statue of Liberty where its actually more impressive in person.

It really is just a big bell.

From there headed out to #2 on every Philly tourist's list; Pat and Gino's cheese steak sandwich shops. Gino's is all neon lights, chrome, "Support the Troops"

signs, "Freedom Fries", and a sign demanding all customers to speak in English only. Ironically the slang they use for ordering sandwiches there doesn’t really sound like

English to me. Further irony in that this place is in the middle of a Hispanic neighborhood between some Mexican restaurants, just a couple blocks from the

Italian neighborhood and kitty-corner from a German area. So I had a sammich there. Cheese whiz with onions. Then threw a bunch of hot peppers on top of that.

Just across the corner is Pat's. Which looks older, more homey, and definitely more inviting. Ordered the same thing there but with the addition of mushrooms

and some hot sauce to go with the hot peppers and a side of fries that come in a cup and are drowned in melted Cheese-Whiz. I had more Cheeze-Whiz in those 30mn then I’ve had in the whole of my life before then.

All in all I gotta say those places are both horribly over-rated. I've made far better at home. The meat was bland, Cheese-Whiz isn’t cheese, and the peppers

really weren't hot. But, after gorging, as I was slowly rolling myself back to the hotel, I discovered the mix was all a bit much even for my iron guts. I found a yuppie

bar where people sit in tables that are built inside '50s style convertible cars to eat organic food and over-priced drinks. They have very nice toilets there.

Well.....they HAD a very nice toilet there.

PHILLY STAGEING - Meet the Hippies

When I got back to the hotel room I discovered that PC is a bit cheap(no big surprise) and that they had bunked me with another PC guy. Despite snoring like a

chainsaw he's a good guy and as times gone on we've come to be friends. Glad I packed the earplugs. The next day at noon registration began. Handing in all

paperwork we'd done before, signing more forms, putting on a name tag, meeting in a big conference hall, and then the next hour or so was occupied with a

getting-to-know-you activity where there were 60 statements like "Find someone who considers themselves handy with mechanical things" or "Find someone who is

a vegetarian and plans to stay that way", then get signatures. Turns out there are 61 of us shipping out for AZ6. That is to say the 6th group of PC folk

to go to Azerbaijan. About half of us are TEFL(English teachers) 25% CED(Community Economic Development, business folk) and the final 25% are YD(Youth Development).

Welcome to the world of acronyms. I will us them often and without apology in this blog. I'll try to define them only once so ya'll will have to read everything to keep up. Of the folk I'd say between 33-50% are straight out of university or not far out. A fair percentage of us are in the mid-range of 28-45. About 8-10 are over 45, including two married couples and one lady who did the PC years ago in S. America and is about 76 now. She's a tough old bird and

one of the nicest folk you’ve ever met and I don't foresee her having any troubles. Oh, and 4 married couples total. One of the married guys spent a year

studying in Japan so we chat in Japanese sometimes. Finally, the group is kindof blindingly white. With only 3-4 exceptions its all a big loaf of Wonder Bread. But only one other red-head in the group.

The rest of the afternoon and the following day where filled with seminars, speechifying, group activities, Q&A sessions, etc in the conference hall. Water, juice, coffee and, most popularly, cookies were provided. In the evenings folk went around to the restaurants and bars in the area. Lots of socializing and lots of last-whatever’s-for-two-years going on. Good times. Everybody seems to have made a point of trying to meet and socialize with everybody. No noticeable cliques


Monday at noon we packed all our bags and all crowded into two buses and began the 2hr trip to JFK airport. We went across part of New Jersey, through Brooklyn

and Queens. Saw a guy sitting in a lawn chair on the side of the road with his pants open and some folk saw his nuts were hanging out. Saw not one but two

shops that claimed to sell boars head. After unpacking the buses they gathered us all in a corner, handed out our fancy new government passports, e-tickets

and set us loose to make our way through security. We got more books and paperwork at staging so I made sure I was first just incase they started

cracking down on overweight bags. After that we all settled in for a 6hr wait for the plane to take off. There had been a meeting at the UN about the financial crisis that afternoon so there were allot of big guys with wires in their ears wandering around.

FLIGHTS - What would Goethe do? Get water from the Babywinkleraum.

Lufthansa is a good airline. Free German beer and wine, decent food, and a choice of brandy or cognac before sleepy time. We had a few hour layover at the Frankfurt airport. A few of us went for coffee and beer at the Goethe Cafe. We drank some nice heffe-weiss while a huge statue of Goeth stared down at us balefully.

In a state of jet-lag, sleep deprivation, and mild caffeine-beer buzz this somehow seemed an appropriate beginning to our AZ adventure. After Goethe

we went in search of a water-fountain. Wandered the whole wing of the airport before finding some drinkvater next to the babywinkleraum. Babywinkleraum

is a word that seemed hilarious at the time....maybe not so much now.

ARRIVAL - They came in the night.

Finally arrived in AZ at 21:30. The airport was far nicer than the one in Delhi. The visa check line went quickly. The baggage belt was very squeaky.

Funny in a country that has so much oil. They just waved us straight threw customs, no problems there. As we walked out into the arrivals terminal our PC

welcome committee of current volunteers cheered and clapped. In the waiting area there was a restaurant with No Smoking signs posted all over and ash-trays full

of cigarette butts and sunflower seed shells below them. We were herded onto buses, given bag lunches, and began the 30mn trip to a resort hotel called

Aqua Park on the shore of the Caspian Sea where we would have another few days of training seminars, medical checks and immunizations.

In years past PCTs(PC Trainees - you don’t become a volunteer until after 3months of training and swearing-in) had this training at the Olympic Training Center

in the south. But this is the first year we have come in September and arrived at late at nite so they wanted somewhere close. The Aqua Park was very nice.

Hot water, shower, western toilets, clean towels most days, a pool with not one, not two, but 3 water slides! European pool tables(10ft+ with tiny pockets),

foosball, ping-pong, beach access, and wi-fi internet that worked during the day when we were too busy to use it or in the very wee hours.

AZ STAGEING - Kill the buggers.


Staging at the Aqua Park consisted of sitting around a hugely long conference table and listening to presentations & taking part in seminars. Some where good, some were useful, some were painful. It started at noon on the first day. They sure like keeping us busy. From the second day we split into groups and

had language training in the mornings. It’s an interesting language. Very similar to Turkish. The word order is backwards from English just like Japanese.

For example, in English "I eat an apple." But in Azerbaijani "I apple eat(ing)." = "M?n alma yemir?m" The verb always comes at the end and there is no

difference(at the elementary level) between the present & present-progressive tenses. Anyhow as the days went by and folk weren’t careful about throwing away

their coffee cups and covering the sugar, creamer and cookies, flies began to gather.

I killed more than my share but it provided only momentary relief.

The best part of the Aqua Park was the food. Every meal was provided and served buffet style. Bread, fresh cucumbers and tomatoes, cilantro, basil, dill and

leaf parsley, cheese, sour cream, tea, juices, tea, fresh fruits including the delicious Corinthian cherry(which Id never had before) at every meal. At breakfast there was usually boiled eggs, wieners, little omelet-like things, a few types of porridge, an egg-spinach dish that I tried making in the US before coming, corn flakes, and a few other dishes. Lunch and dinner included kebab, stuffed tomatoes peppers and eggplants, fried potatoes, chicken grilled with spices and veggies, sometimes rice with white raisins cooked in it, and all sorts of other stuff. I don’t think I had anything that I didn’t like the whole time there.....except for the time I took what I thought was a big slice of cheese and when I put it in my mouth it turned out to be salty butter. There was a kind of cheese that looks like feta only a bit drier and smells like Uncle Jim's barnyard; that took some getting used to but it can be good in small amounts mixed with other things.

It was a good time to get to know all the other PCTs, to meet the PC staff, and to meet the host-country national staff who will be training us in the language,

culture, provided medical and security services, and coordinating the programs we will work on as Volunteers. Good folk, all of them.



Finally we got on buses depending on what neighborhood we would stay in. Were given our medical kits(inc Tamiflu incase of Bird Flu), water filter, and AZ-Eng

Eng-AZ dictionaries and set out for the host families whom we will be staying with until the end of Training in December. We are staying in and around Sumgait.

A place that could have been a beautiful resort town on the Caspian but instead the Soviets built refineries and chemical factories here. It was one of the most polluted place on Earth for 20+years, with cancer and child mortality at astronomical rates but Independence brought the collapse of those industries. Its gotten much cleaner since then. Many crumbling factories and pipelines remain but the streets are cleaner than those I saw in India and rural China and

the water is clean enough to drink without filtration. Indeed it tastes better than city water in Philly or anything I ever drank in California.

There are some PCTs and PCVs who drink it without boiling but I’ve had my bout of dysentery after Vietnam and Im not interested in trying that again. In the

suburbs most of the roads are unpaved and lack drainage so. It had been raining that morning so as we were being dropped off we had to deal with mud roads and

puddles like small ponds. Most of the housing around here is brown concrete Soviet built apartment complexes and family compounds surrounded by

walls built from brown concrete, limestone, and rusted scrap metal. The outsides seemed depressing at first but years of Soviet oppression taught people

to let the outside look drab and uninviting while the insides are generally very nice and inviting. MY BED

Our bus driver couldn’t find my place so they called my host family and the host mom, Mulehat, walked over to guide us. She was very shy at first and wouldn’t talk but she came with a boy who spoke a little English it wasn’t until later in the evening that I realized he was a cousin, not part of my host family.

I was shown to the house which is quite nice. The usual brown walls around the blot and plate iron gate but inside it a nice flower garden with some trees and roses, a chicken coop, brick patio area. The house is old but nicer than the farm-house I


rented during university. It has hot water, indoor shower/tub(though the shower head is broke so we take bucket showers) and a western toilet. The toilet is a bit awkward from my American/Japanese perspective. TP cant be flushed. It has to be thrown away in a can next to the toilet. I’ve learned to use allot less paper this way :) And no, it doesn’t smell near as much as you might think.

Mulehat made me chai(brown tea) and once she could start doing the motherly stuff she became much less shy. I was shown my room which is bigger than I ever had

in Japan. I have a bed, a desk, a chair, a fan, the families supply of extra pillows and blankets, and a five gallon glass container full of what I thought was water but have since found out is the family's home-made mulberry vodka. What I wouldn’t give for a long straw! Let me tell you that stuff burns all the way down ;)

Later in the evening Ramiz, my host father, came home. He's a fat, bald, jolly old man with a set of gold teeth. He reminds me of Uncle Willard. When he

arrived we sat down for dinner and Mulehat brought us out food and tea. She's just like great-grandma that way and reminds me of the old days and family dinners at her house. She brings out the food for the men folk, cooking constantly, wont sit down and eat until the men are finished or they demand she sit down and join them. We had baked chicken that had been stewed in some broth then scrambled egg mixed in. The have something very similar in Japan called Oyako. It was damn good. Lots of grease to be sopped up with fresh bread and a cucumber, tomato, basil, onion, pepper salad made out of stuff from their garden. During dinner he broke out a bottle of AZ vodka and we toasted each other with a few shots.

After took me to his garden which was just down the road. Again behind the walls with


a plate iron gate that’s padlocked shut. The garden is huge with all

the veggies I mentioned and eggplant, squash, apple trees, quince, pomegranate, pears and lots of other stuff. Along with the chickens they also raise geese

that are let loose to wander around the neighborhood during the day.

Ramiz is a private taxi driver/chauffer. His car is a brand new Opal which is far nicer than anything I’ve ever owned. He was very proud to tell me it cost $13,000

USD, more than his house! He spends a few hours every day cleaning and maintaining it. But he never works past 17:00 because he wants to be with his family

and work in his garden.

As the day progressed there had been lots of folk in and out of the house. Some where family, some neighbors. Only the boy spoke any English and before dinner

he disappeared. It wasn’t until late in the evening that the only folk in my host family were Ramiz, Mulehat, and their 12yo daughter Feride. The most important word I learned that first day was "Yaxshi" which means "good".

DAILY LIFE - It happens every day

We work 6 days a week. We meet in groups of 5-6 at a nearby school for 4 hours of language training every morning. A couple hours of to walk home for lunch then the long walk to another school where all of the CED PCTs meet for another 2-4 hours of job training in the afternoon. There is a lady in her 60s in my

language group who has to walk 30mn to school every morning! By the time training is done she should be slim and in the best shape of her life.

Some folk are able to take a marshrutka(public transportation minibus) to one or the other schools or home again. Its a standard fare of .20Manat


(1Manat=$.80USD so about 25cents) regardless of how far you go. I get home in the evening. Study for a bit. Mulehat makes me chai. Ramiz gets home and

we eat. Then we sit in the family room and watch Turkish dramas while the daughter and I sit on the couch and go over flash cards on my computer. I usually

go to bed at 10, watch a movie or read a book on my computer and sleep at around 24:00. Get up at 7:30 or 8, eat breakfast, and start classes again at 9.

We generally get Sundays off, but not always.

RAMADAN - Called Ramazan in AZ

My family isn’t very religious it seems. Ramiz got in the car and went to visit his parents out in the Rayons(the Regions, the countryside, inaka). I stayed

home with Mulehat and Ferdide. Lots of neighbors and extended family stopped in for visits as is common here. Beauty and the Beast was on tv. Dubbed into

Azerbaijani. It was strange to hear a man talk the song "Be Our Guest"...he was ephusive but he just talked it, no singing. The only special food was

Xalva, a paste made from flour, butter, and ground walnuts. Very good stuff. When Ramiz came home his brother??? came over and we had dinner and a few shots


of vodka. The only religiosity I’ve noticed in this family is that Mulehat doesn’t eat pork. Other than that it just isnt an issue. Other PCTs

families run the gamut of very religious to similarly not. I haven’t heard of anyone being with a Christian or Jewish family. Could be wrong but I don’t

think there are any Buddhists here.


SHOPPING - I found Usama ben Laden!

The second day with our host families we gathered with our language teachers (LCF = Language & Cultural Facilitator) and took the marshrutka to the center of

Sumgayit to go shopping for cell phones and power stabilizers. PC gives us a 70AZN(AZN is the symbol for the national currency, the Manat) for the purchase of

a cell phone here. Sadly they couldn’t unlock the phone a brought from Japan to use here. The prepaid phone I brought from the States could be unlocked

but its really a crappy phone. Given the possibility I may be in an area with no/unreliable internet access later in my service and the difficulty of getting

it even here, I decided to spring for the cheapest phone that had a camera and could access the net. So one way or the other I can read my email.

Most of us also got power stabilizers. If one watches the lights here you can see them get brighter or dimmer from time to time. This is more than just the

wee surges you might get back in the States(and much less so in Japan). This is the voltage (possibly amperage or cycles...its been a long time since I studied

this stuff) actually increasing or decreasing. PC staff says the whole thing is a myth and that they haven’t had any trouble with their computers ever getting fried thus PC wont pay for it. Besides, they say, computers and other electronics aren’t NECESSARY for our service.....just highly recommended.

I watch the lights go dimm then extra bright and quietly disagree that the danger is a myth. No, your battery or transformer PROBABLY won’t fry, but its life is being decreased at greater rate. Also this staff lives in the big cities not in the Rayons(Regions) were we will be living. What I know for a fact is that my host family doesnt have lots of disposable income but they have 2 stabilizers. One for the TV and VCR and another on for the frige and electric oven. I figure it was worth the 25AZN to protect my sensitive electronic equipment.

Rant over.


While shopping we stopped at a supermarket. Most food is bought from bazaars and neighborhood minimarkets but in the big city they have a little supermarket

like you might find in the States where everything is wrapped in plastic and atleast gives the comfort of an illusion of modern hygiene. I hung out with some other folk outside the market holding other peoples bags and stabilizers when we noticed a desk sitting on the sidewalk off to the side. Near as I can tell it belonged to a shoe shiner who was off taking a break. On the desk was written "USAMA BEN LADEN" in giant letters. So I guess we know where he ran off to and what he's doing now.

In conclusion; all is well, I'm happy with my host family and town, Azerbaijan is a pretty good place, most everyone Ive met has been friendly and interesting, thus far so illness nor injury, and the Earth still spins in the proper direction. My only complaint is lack of election and economic news.

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