Wednesday, September 18, 2013

That's All She Wrote

I've been trying since I returned home to write this post, but each time I made the attempt, it felt just a little too raw and incredibly difficult to articulate; to tell it to you straight, upon returning home, I was a little "Azerbaicrazy."  I won't sugarcoat it.  I felt, and acted, like a giant weirdo.

When I left Azerbaijan, it was absolutely time.  My experiences with men on the street and harassment had left me with an anxiety that was maddening for someone like me, and by "like me," I mean a "fearless independent woman." What my maddening experience in Azerbaijan taught me is that I am vulnerable.  And despite once feeling fearless, I am, in fact, susceptible to the decisions of others; someone grabbing me in the street, someone asking me "how much for your services?," someone coming to my apartment door to solicit me for sex, multiple incidences of being followed by men in cars or on foot.  It meant constantly feeling like I had to be on alert and ever mindful of my decisions.

While I was in country, I was sexually assaulted.  This was an incredibly difficult experience.  It showed me that although I always found myself to be strong and powerful, those feelings can quickly be diminished by an act forced on me by another.

It also made me a little nuts.

Experiencing what law enforcement was like for an American was different than what it would have been like for an Azerbaijani female.  Azerbaijani women would never report, never pursue legal recourse and would never admit it happened.  She would be blamed, her reputation would be ruined and she would be labeled unmarriable.  It puts a whole new meaning to the word "victim blaming." I, however, was an American.  The American Embassy became involved and local entities in Azerbaijan respond to government pressure--America carries a lot of weight in other countries and Azerbaijan is no different.

Ultimately, the man, who I was able to fight off before something as terrifying as rape happened, was never found.  I think knowing I fought back is powerful, but knowing he was never found is haunting.  It haunts me knowing I have young women I care for deeply living in that community and that they, too, are vulnerable.

Plus it just really pisses me off.

I want to note, because I am choosing to post this publicly, that Peace Corps staff and headquarters were incredibly supportive.  I will be forever grateful to Jeyhun, our in-country security officer, for his swift action, ongoing support and incredible response.  Our Country Director, too, was incredibly supportive.  Peace Corps has received some deeply critical feedback about their response to safety concerns and I want to say that my experience was nothing like that.  I felt enormously supported.

Although I find myself incredibly changed by that experience, it does not define me nor my service.  It is hard to know what the statistics are in Azerbaijan regarding sexual assault, because women rarely report it, but I would almost guarantee the statistics are higher in the United States.  I also feel, had I encountered this experience in America, the result would have been much worse and it may have broken me.

No, this act, certainly does not define my service.

The people I met, the relationships I built, and the people I have come to know as my family--my students, my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, the community members who cared for me and my dear Azerbaijani friends, they are how I define my service.

These are the reasons I know Peace Corps was the right choice for me.

I miss Azerbaijan.  I miss those wonderful friends and relationships I spent time building.  I miss running with Girls' Club and traveling with young women to places they had never seen before.  I miss debating in conversation club.  I miss feeling like what I do every day matters.

Ultimately, feeling as though I made a difference is the experience Peace Corps offered me.  It opened up an entirely new world to me and taught me to be a better citizen of it; it also taught me how to be a better American.

Peace Corps challenged me in ways I never could have imagined.  The challenges I faced while in country were never those I anticipated prior to departing for service.  As much as I may want to try, the challenges a Peace Corps Volunteer may face in their service, is not something which can be explained to you here; every Peace Corps experience is different.  We're different people, in different places (even when we are in the same country) and we are all going to react to things differently.  This means you can never really know what Peace Corps will bring you.

What I want to say is, Peace Corps service is not for just anyone.  It changed me in ways I am incredibly grateful for and in other ways I am not as grateful for.  But I would sign up again in a heartbeat.  Well, maybe two heartbeats.

I typically find saying "goodbye" rather difficult, perhaps it is because things so rarely "truly" end.  Our experiences live on in our daily choices, and although one experience or relationship may end, it leaves us with an experience to draw from for the rest of our lives.  My Peace Corps experience is one I will draw from for the rest of my life.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

In Memory Of My Grandmother


When I was very young, I remember staying many nights at my grandparents' house.  At times, I would sleep in bed with my Aunt Chrissy and younger sister.  As children do, we always seemed to wake up earlier than the grown-ups, except, it would seem, for Gram.  Gram, knowing her daughter and her grandchildren well, would peek her head into the room, and motion for us to follow her downstairs, allowing Aunt Chrissy (who was in her early twenties at the time) a few more hours of precious sleep.

Gram always seemed to know just what people needed.

As her grandchild, Gram made me feel like the center of the universe.  When she became ill, and bedridden, I would perform “shows” for her.  I would go into the hallway closet, put on a hat, pick up a cane that sat near the doorway, and do my rockette impression.  Or Grandpa would put on Bette Midler and I would lip sync to “Ms. Otis Regrets.” Whatever my nerdy mind came up with and performed, Gram held on to every move.  In my 30s, when I visited (which I confess was with far less frequency than either of us would like), Gram would ask me to sing a song with my Aunt for her.  I embarrassingly (and happily) agreed.  She cultivated my creativity and encouraged me to be myself.

My Gram taught me how to cook.  I know this was particularly difficult for her at times, because she loved to cook and care for others.  Kim and I would wheel her into the kitchen and she would tell us how to cut garlic, cook meat, sautee onions, soak beans and prepare various meals.  Because of Gram, I knew how to cook well before many of my friends.

My Gram taught me about compassion and patience.  Despite hardships, the loss of a baby, the loss of a son, an illness that made her bedridden--I never once heard Gram feel sorry for herself or ask “Why me?”

My Grandparents were the first to teach me about God and faith.  They drove me to catechism every day when I was in 7th grade, stopping along the way to grab a snack before we went.  At Grandma and Grandpa’s house, I read bible passages to Gram and she would ask me about what I thought.  My Gram was devout and her faith is something I greatly respect and am a bit in awe of.

Gram taught me about make-up application and hair curlers.  About exercise and fitness.  She encouraged walking and swimming and I remember her swimming laps and riding bikes at Fawn Lake when I was young.  She was a professional model.  Performed in commercials and led a life which had many interesting stories (which she happily shared).

My Gram often taught me lessons perhaps unknowingly.  Her illness taught me a great deal about caring for others.  When I spent time with Gram I would wash her hair or massage her legs.  I would help apply her make-up or set rollers in her hair.  And I loved doing this for her.  I don’t think I realized what that must have been like, to reverse the care process, because I know how much she loved caring for me.  As a young person, Gram taught me a great deal about how to care for other people, how to be less selfish.  Not just in her love and care for me, but in allowing me to care for her too. 

I cannot express what my Grandma meant to me, the things she taught me and what it was like to have her as a part of my growing up.  It’s difficult to be so far away and miss saying goodbye.  However, my Uncle said something to me that made me laugh and gives me comfort.  He said to me, “You know no one wanted to meet God more than Grandma.”  It’s true.  I hope she’s in heaven now, with her siblings and son, looking down and smiling.  And more than that, I hope I've made her proud, because much of who I am is due to who she was.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Saying Goodbye

My life as a Peace Corps Volunteer is coming to an end and although I have three months left, I know it will be a whirlwind of activity which is certain to fly by.  This week we will attend our "Close of Service," or COS, conference; a conference which will walk us through our service completion.

I don't know how to say goodbye to a place I both love and loathe at the same time.  I hadn't anticipated that.  I didn't know I would feel such wildly opposing emotions upon preparing for my service, although I could ask, how does one really prepare for a service such as this?  Here, I have grown to truly love the women in my community, the hospitality, and the strong ties to family.  I adore the children in my neighborhood who, upon seeing my windows open, cry out to me to "come and play!" How do I say goodbye to warm hugs from little arms received every time I walk to and from my building (even if it's within minutes of the last arrival/departure)? Or goodbye to makeshift water gun fights on hot summer days?  And yet, at the same time, know that I'll be able to say goodbye to the things I find so incredibly loathsome; the harassment from men on the street, being followed and then sexually assaulted, patriarchal gender roles and the extremely few options available to women.  I find a great sense of relief to be leaving it behind, but torn knowing that I will be leaving behind young women I adore, whose lives will continually encounter these challenges, most likely for its remainder.

How do I leave behind the people I've come to know as family? My Azeri sisters; the women who I've grown to love, cherish and trust.  How do I live with the knowledge of knowing how different our lives will be moving forward?  How do I say goodbye to my dear Azeri friend and brother, who has helped me with almost every problem I've had in country, and helped to look out for me while I've been so far away from home? How do I say goodbye to my Peace Corps family?  Who, too, will be moving on to their next great adventure; people who have, surely, given me the love and support needed (and an understanding no one else in my life could have), which has allowed me to remain in service, inspired me daily, and allowed me to retain some semblance of sanity.

There is, truly, no way to prepare for the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Every single Volunteer's experience is different.  It is an experience which is unique to their country, community, personality, and personal abilities.  Our experiences vary so wildly, although are seemingly similar.  How do you begin to talk about this experience with others?  How do you explain its intricacies?  That you can both love and hate something so passionately? That if asked if you'd do it over again, knowing what you know now, not knowing quite how to respond?  How do you explain that the weight of these experiences are never easily recorded on one side of the scale or the other?  Although there are things I greatly loathe about being here, some experiences which I loathe, are also experiences which I am grateful for, because they've taught me about myself and much about the world we live in.

This journey is not one which has been particularly easy.  It's certainly nothing close to what I imagined it would be and perhaps that's one of my greatest lessons.  Things are rarely close to what you imagine them to be, good and bad.  Although I will be saying goodbye to Azerbaijan the country, I could never say goodbye to the things I've learned here.  Although my mind is still very much invested in this experience, and I'm certain I can't yet see much of my service clearly, what I picture I've gained from it, what I hope I've gained from it, is a great deal of personal and professional growth.  It is my greatest hope that the people I've worked with here, both students and community members, will think the same of themselves once I have left it.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Bathing in Oil


When I received my invitation to Azerbaijan, I did what most people would do and began doing internet searches.  One of the first things I saw when I switched over to a Google Image search was a picture of an older man in a bathtub of oil.  I remember thinking it was one of those obscure images which occasionally pop up in a Google search.  However, over the multiple months of living in Azerbaijan, this image continued to find its way into my life.  It is plastered on billboards throughout the country, has been the topic of conversation clubs and was even featured in an episode of The Amazing Race when the show came to Azerbaijan.

Naftalan, a city located about an hour from my host city, is best known for providing the oil for these baths.  It is believed that the natural minerals found in Naftalan’s oil hold curative properties.  The baths are recommended to patients with various medical conditions (e.g., joint pain, psoriasis and nervous conditions) and are also used in spa treatments.  I'll admit, every time I saw the advertisement, I shook my head with skepticism, but I also felt intrigued.

Recently, I went to visit a friend and student who lives in Naftalan.  I had continually promised him that I would visit and because he was leaving for the army, it would be my last opportunity to visit.  While busing into the city, there were approximately a dozen signs on my way from Mingachevir to Naftalan.  Later in the afternoon, I began to ask my friend about places which provided oil baths and their price range.  Asking this led to taking me to a location where I was swept into a store items were purchased (a towel, shampoo, shower slippers and soap).  It seemed, as a guest, this experience was one I would be having that very day.

Upon entering the room, you are asked to disrobe and enter into the bath room.  The woman with me was wonderfully kind and the entire location was extremely clean.  I was directed to step into the tub and to sit down. I sat.  Once I sat down, the xanim turned on the spout.  From the spout poured a brown mixture of, what I'm guessing, was oil and mud.  It was very warm.  It smelled only slightly like you would expect oil to smell.  She explained to me I would only be able to stay in for 10 minutes.  


Because the center doesn't receive many foreigners, the woman was very curious about my life.  About a minute into my bath, another woman who worked at the center joined us (it was a slow day) and together they asked me questions about America and my life.  


As I was sitting in the tub, I could feel my heart rate begin to increase.  I can't tell you what might be the reason for this, only that it happened.  The oil does contain chemicals and perhaps it's a combination of the heat and chemicals? Or that all your pores are covered in oil?  

After my ten minutes were complete, I stood up from the tub and the excess oil was scraped off with a shoehorn (no kidding).  Following the shoehorn scraping, I entered the shower, where I had help washing my back (and then left to my own devices).  It took a good 20 minutes to successfully wash off all the oil; for the rest of the day (and for a few days after) I smelled faintly like a car (but a fancy one).

I would recommend everyone try this out, if nothing else than for the experience!  Check out this video to get an idea of what it's like.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

It Adds Up

Today, while I was walking to an event for our organization, a car followed me (almost) the entire way.  As I walked, he pulled up beside me, parked and began to yell to me.  As I continued to walk, he continued his wooing stalking, pulling up, parking behind cars and yelling as I walked along the sidewalk.  When the sidewalk ended, I began to walk into a store parking lot, but he pulled in front of the sidewalk, blocking my way.  I walked behind his car, remained stone faced and retained my pace.  He backed out of the parking lot and went to the other side, trying the same tactic, blocking the sidewalk on the other side.  Again, I walked around his car and shattered his windshield with the baseball bat I carry continued onward to my destination.  Eventually, he moved along, most likely to stalk some other unsuspecting gazelle.

The story I'm sharing with you is not uncommon, not for me, nor my fellow female AZPCVs.  It is my greatest cause of stress in Azerbaijan.  I remember in my first months at site how scary I found these events.  Now I just find them common place, irritating and anger inducing (although the general anxiety that comes with people stalking you is still there).

With warmer weather now finding its way to Azerbaijan, the incidences of harassment are (much) higher.  Recently, while I was walking with one of my students (and friend), a car pulled up in front of us, blocking the sidewalk.  The driver then began calling out to me in Russian.  We ignored them and walked on.  I've had cars follow me all the way from work to my apartment block.  I've had boys follow and speak rudely behind me while I walked with a group of girls.  Two weeks ago I was walking with my American friend when a man came up and put his arm around her.  She looked stricken, I was just angry.  I physically removed his hand off her and told him to leave NOW.  He seemed amused, took his hand off her, but then continued to follow us. We crossed the street, he crossed the street.  We turned right, he turned right.  Etc. Etc. Etc.  I think I could have, for the first time in my life, hit someone.

I have had boys follow me for so long, that in order to get rid of them I had to fake a phone call to my dear (male) friend and counterpart (this works incredibly well for walker-stalkers, not as well for guys in cars).  I always have the option of actually calling him, but I try to only call him in extreme cases.

The ongoing harassment is exhausting and I can feel the anger accumulating. It's a low, but steady stream of annoyance that's building to become something bigger.  I'm not an angry person.  Really.  I get irritated with people, but I voice my dismay/annoyance and then I'm over it; a flash in the pan really. I've never "seen red" and am sometimes taken aback by extreme anger.  This is a whole different experience.  There's just no real solution.  I know I will not see the end of this behavior before my service is complete.  One of my fellow sitemates had a male student tell her he must always walk with her.  Yes, the solution is to always have a male with me.  You know, just give up a little more of my freedom and independence and always have a dude with me.  That seems like the most awful idea ever viable.

The thing is, the best reaction to these types of events (as long as they aren't severe or physically threatening) is to ignore them.  Any response is taken as a sort of indicator that you're interested,.  But it adds up.  The continued stress, annoyance, anger, irritation, it doesn't leave right away and the next day when you're still reeling from the day before, you leave your house and again experience this type of interaction.  And the day after that. The same.  And the day after. The same. Rinse. Repeat.  And bit by bit, it weighs on you.  I can sense it some days when I'm short with someone for no reason and it's typically after an exchange of this nature.  The anger can be misdirected.  I keep it pretty well in check, but sometimes it seeps out and creeps into a place it doesn't belong.

Don't get me wrong.  I do things to alleviate stress. I run. I write. I color.  I take a day for myself and hide out in my apartment to read a book and drink coffee, but there are some months where there isn't enough time to unwind and those seem to be when instances of harassment are rampant.  It adds up.

I love my service and I have great work, students and friends.  By far my service is a positive one.  If you're looking for me, I can usually be found making a lame joke with a dumb grin on my face, but I have bad days here too.  And when I don't have the time to take a minute, it's difficult get my head health back to where it needs to be (and it can get a little nutty inside this messy mind of mine).

I suppose the key, if there is one, is awareness.  I'm aware of how I'm feeling and its causes and although I have virtually no control over these interactions, it's important to be aware of how I'm feeling and why I'm feeling that way.  When I'm feeling just a little nutty (like today for example), I can try to take a moment to pause and figure out where my head is at.

Peace Corps was bound to present me with challenges and this is, by far, my greatest.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Days Like This

I haven't written a blog post in, well, far too long.  Part of this is due to no longer having internet at my home and the other part is due to a relatively long winter which left much of my writing negative and whiny (and who wants to read that?).

May is here and with it warm weather and bright rays of sunshine.  Today I spent the day with some of the young women from my classes, who I've come to regard as friends.  There are times when life is difficult here.  When walking through the streets can leave you exhausted from stares, shouts, laughter (directed at you), boys who follow you through the park or in their car on your way home.  These experiences are exhausting because there's no way to improve upon them.

But along with these experiences are the ones which I will forever cherish.  A walk with one of my female friends discussing women's rights.  Starting a girls run and sports club, which, despite it's Sunday 8am club time,  is something I greatly enjoy (although I often find it difficult to leave bed).  I have a schedule here which, I'm certain, I will never have again.  I workout and run every day, which is something I never seemed to have time for in America.  A week ago, I went for a hike with one of my friends all day on a Friday.  I set my own club hours, my own schedule and work with incredible students.

I've been spending a great deal of time with the students in my Women's Club.  We discuss just about every topic you can think of (although it seems to often center around the role of women). In this sharing, I find I am frequently excited and saddened, especially when we talk about the ways things could be.  Azerbaijan is sometimes difficult to navigate because it is close enough in appearance to America (cars, paved streets, WIFI, public transportation, etc.) and yet it still is lacking in things like equal access to water, gas and electricity.  It's lacking in equal rights; despite a constitution which grants equality to men and women (but what good is a law if it's not culturally accepted or imposed?).  It's incredible to me the privileges I have been extended in my life solely based on the country I happened to be born in; that something I have no control over can so drastically change my life (although, I suppose it can be argued that it is often the things we have no control over which drastically change our lives).

This post is all over the place, my intention was to reflect on how lucky I feel, so I would like to conclude with that.  I enjoy my service, the people I've met, the friends I've made.  I greatly enjoy working with students, with the Peace Corps community and I love that daily, I never quite know what to expect (although I confess it's both exhilarating and anxiety inducing).  I am lucky, not just because of the country I was born to (but it does make me feel pretty lucky), but also to be here in Azerbaijan living this life.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Mingəçevirdə Əcnəbilər

Mingəçevir müqayisə edilməz şəhərdirBu gözəl şəhərdir, fəvvarələr və işıqlar ilə doludur.  Yayda, mən Heydər parkında musiqiyə qulaq asmağı və dostlar ilə üzməyi çox xoşlayıram.  Mingəçevirda maraqlı şəylər var və mən burada çoxlu yeni dostlar ilə taniş oluram.

Buna baxmayaraq kişilər mənimlə pis davranır çünki mən xarici vətəndaşam və ya sadəcə qadın olduğum  üçun.  (Mən bilirəmki Azerbaycanda qadinların belə problemləri var.)  Bəzən mən gəzintiya getmək istəmiram, həmçinin, adamlar tez-tez gözünü zilleyib baxır onlar xarici şəxs görəndə gülməyə başlayırlar.

Mən fikirleşiramki onlar coxlu xarıci vətəndaş görməyiblər, amma xarici vətəndaşın burda yaşamasını çətinləşdirirlər.  Bu Mingəçevir üçün pisdir, xarici şəxslər bunlar haqinda dostlarına ailələrinə deyacaklar.  Onlarda Azerbaycan haqinda pis fikirləşəcəklər və bu  həqiqət deyil, amma Azərbaycanda uzun muddat qalmayan adamlar Azərbaycanın möhtəşəm olduğunu bilməyacaklər.  Sən xarici vətəndaşlarla danişarkan sən davranışlarla ölkəni təmsil  edirsən (və mən Amərikanı  etdiyim işlərlə və davranışımla təmsil edirəm). 

Hal-hazırda, Mingəçevirdə Çindan və Amerikadan olan insanlar yaşayır və idman və iş üçün gələn xaricilər var.  Bizim çox gözəl imkanımız var ki Azərbaycanın necədə gözəl ölkə olduğunu göstərək.
Azərbaycanlıların necə mehriban olduğunu bilsinlər.  Mənə çox yaxşı davranırlar, amma küçədə gəzərkən  mənə evim kimi dogma olan Mingəçevir haqqında yaxşı  şeylər deya bilmərəm.

Gəlin bir-birimizlə mehriban olaq.

Bu məqaləni tərcümə etməkde kömək etdiyi üçün Humay Baxisovaya çox teşşəkkür edirəm.