Sunday, April 27, 2008

Weird Animal Stories

This is a post dedicated to some of the interesting and perhaps unusual animal sightings I've had here in the past couple of months. Warning- not all the animals are of the cute, fuzzy and living kind. I guess I'll go in chronological order by sighting for lack of a better way to organize this slightly random post.
The first story comes from the inside of a marshrutka as you can see from the picture. I was coming back from Mingechavir as I very often do and I hitched a ride with a very nice couple from Balaken, a region in far northwestern Azerbaijan on the Georgian, Russian border. They were going to visit their son who was in the military in Shemkir, a city about an hour west of Ganja. Since they were passing through the city the gave me a lift. We chatted quite a bit and they were of course curious about me, a young woman standing by the side of the road trying to get to Ganja. Not long into our journey but what did I spy ahead of us but an old Russian car carrying an unusual load. Yes folks there were live sheep strapped to the roof rack. I had seen this before but had failed to get a picture but I was ready this time. I've also seen ducks tied to the tops of cars as well. The couple were laughing too, so I guess it is a little bit unusual. When I asked they said it was not 'normal.'
A few weeks later I was in Mingechavir (again) and Mike and I were strolling through the bazaar trying to scrounge up some grub for dinner, when we heard lots and lots of little cheeping noises. We looked around and then down and there was a box filled with baby chickens for sale- 60 cents a pop! Not bad considering eggs are 10 cents a piece. If you keep it healthy its a pretty good return on your investment, especially if you just feed it food scraps and um other things, but I'll get to that story later on. We almost got one for Mike's sitemate Nate. But we thought since he didn't have a yard it might not be a good idea. They're pretty cute!
And now for the story of Fankie. I think his full name is Francis but I'm not positive. Fankie is a hedgehog that Maria saved from the Ganja bazaar. I've seen them in cages on the street and wondered what they were use for. I found out its soup. I'm not really sure how Azeris prepare it, whether they just dump the whole hedgehog in the pot and let it stew like with khash? (Note: Khash is a delicacy of boiled cow or sheep head and legs. These parts are severed, the hair is blowtorched off and they are sold all over town. I walk by several Head and Feet shops on my wayto work. There is even a door to door head and feet salesman. You just dump the head and feet in a pot add some herbs and then enjoy the yummy goodness that falls out and into your bowl. Needless to say I've never tried khash, nor do I intend to. My host family tried to feed me entrails soup once but the smell of it killed my appetite. I can't imagine what khash would be like.)
Back to Frankie. Maria is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Qazaq, far Western Azerbaijan on the Armenian and Georgian border. She bought Frankie for 5 manat. I'm not sure why other than they're pretty cute, low maintenance, and when you live in Qazaq who wouldn't want someone or something to keep you company. Frankie made a trip to Ganja a couple of weeks ago and curious, Mike and I went over to visit him at Tor's apartment. (Tor is a PC volunteer in Ganja) This is a picture of Tor with Frankie. Although hedgehogs are nocturnal, we did get him out and waddling around before dark. He especially liked to crawl into the dark spaces.... hmmm.
My final story is from a couple of days ago, and its dedicated to Carol. I remember several conversations with Carol, when she was still here in Ganja, about her affinity for finding dead animals either whole or in part all around they city and country. I may not have seen as many as she has but I've definitely seen my share, too, mostly chicken feet or heads right outside my doorstep. But the other night I was walking back home from work and in a patch of trash riddled dirt were three or four severed rooster heads. But the funny thing was- well not funny- more like disturbing was the group of live chickens scratching around the same area. I ran upstairs got my camera but sadly when I returned, the live chickens had gone but the roosters were still there. So I got a picture of that. Yeah its pretty nasty. sorry. But dead animals in all their forms really is part of life here. I'm just really, really glad I'm a vegetarian. Oh and the other animals of note in the picture are the ants. Its ant season again. My apartment is infested but not as bad as Mike's. Try as I might can't keep it clean enough to get rid of them. I guess its just part of summer.

The Head of the Kur

As if we hadn't had enough excitement with all the Novruz partying, the following weekend was the first international rowing competition in Mingechavir. The President's Cup, as it was called (and surprisingly 'president' was not referring to Ilham Aliyev, but rather the president of the Azerbaijani National Rowing Federation, Elchin Zeynalov), was 4 days of rowing excitement with teams from, Russia, Georgia and Iran. The first two days were the sculling and the final two were the canoeing and kayaking events. On the morning of the first day we tried to haul ourselves out of bed for the opening ceremonies. As with most events here information regarding the details was difficult to come by. The only news we had to go on was word of mouth from Azeri friends and the unusual number of large blond men in town. So we did not jump out of bed in case it was all for nothing. We mosied across town to the banks of the Kur river. It didn't look like people were walking in droves to anything in particular. From the opposite side we could see buoys and a small crowd gathering so we continued on our way with brighter prospects of actually viewing an interesting sporting event here. Sadly when we arrived we discovered we had missed the opening ceremony. (Darn we missed another plethora of speeches) but the events were underway. sort of. It was hard to tell. There was a lot of hubbub around, people in speed boats racing to and frow but there was no schedule and certainly no announcer so we really had no idea what was going on. There was a kind of program that had some information about the future of Azeri rowing, the new sports complex and some general information on the competition but no details like times and specific events. So we talked with an Azeri student Mike helps out who was covering the event for his university paper, and he tried to get more information for us There was lots of media around along with several police officers and government officials. So we hob nobbed with them. This event also marked the official opening of the new Riverside Hotel which charges exorbitant prices for nice enough rooms but sadly there's no other infrastructure in Mingechavir to draw tourists. Why would anyone come here to vacation? There is absolutely nothing to do! But I digress. The hotel restaurant sported Euro-style furniture that should have stayed in Europe and it was so new they still didn't have menus. But the staff was very friendly and helpful. Back to the races we saw that a group of rowers was making its way to the finish line. We weren't even really sure which team was which as very few of the boats were marked and only the Iranians actually had uniforms. We hung around for a few more races, which were mostly won by the Russians or the Iranians. They were just so much bigger than the Azeris and the Georgians. There were also some women doing some warm-ups and I hoped to see one of the women's events. Sadly it was not to be. At around mid-day we were starving and over-heated so we went to lunch at the cafe on the other side. After some sustenance we decided to check out the new sports complex. Although far from finished, when it is completed it will be pretty amazing. But again the question I have to ask is why? But the answer I believe lies in the fact that Azerbaijan is vying for the 2016 Olympics. All I have to say is they have a LONG, LONG way to go!
The next day I had to go back to Ganja. I thought I had to go to work but then it turns out I didn't so I came back to Mingechavir to take in the rest of the rowing fun. In the meantime the Russian team had gone home. I guess they didn't have any canoers or kayakers. These events were a bit more heated, or wet for some. We saw some angry disqualifications quite a few people fall out which can't be very fun. The racing boats are pretty tippy. On the last day we tried really hard to get up early but again- no luck- and today there were huge crowds. And then we realized they were all college students who the government forced to come to the event. The students weren't really paying attention and
most were trying to sneak off. We had been blessed with small crowds the days before which was much more comfortable- no staring or stupid 'What is your name" questions. But today was a whole nother ball game. We escaped to another viewing area beyond the hotel pool and had some nice conversation with some Iranian team members. There biggest shock was coming to Azerbaijan and finding out that no one spoke English so they were happy to talk to us and clarify some things about the competition.
Well, it wasn't the head of the Charles but it was a pretty nice way to spend a couple of days outside! They even got the cotton candy out for it. Who knows the world may be watching the rowing's best of the best in Mingechavir in 2016!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Novruz 2008 in Mingechavir Part 2

The following day was fairly uneventful. Mike had meetings and I was revising my thesis proposal. In the evening we were invited to Elvin' s aunt's house for another Novruz dinner. Elvin is a student at the Teachers Institute and he works with the Ming PCVs quite a lot. He is very excited about anything American and was very excited to have us all come to his house for dinner. Dinner was more of the same, Dolma, Plov, Baklava. We had an egg challenge. Afterwards we all took a stroll outside since all of the apartment blocks were having bonfires that night. We stopped at some embers and jumped over them, wishing our last years' troubles away. There were some fireworks, too. We wandered in on Carolyn's counterpart's party and we danced around with them for a while and watched small children play with sparklers. It was really fun until the kids started throwing fireworks at us. Then we made for home.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Novruz 2008 in Mingechavir Part 1

The Novruz festivities ended with several large gatherings in Mingechavir. Early on Thursday the 20th of March, the vernal equinox and the official Novruz day, Mike and I hopped out of bed in Ganja and sped up to Mingechavir for the big party there. We arrived just on time. Like last year the main street had been blocked off and all of the schools had set up Novruz displays around the square in front of the police station and municipality building. We found Mike's awesome sitemates Jesse and Carolyn at Carolyn's school's display. She is a TEFL volunteer at school number 13. We said our hellos and then made our way around to look at all the other beautiful displays. We were treated like royalty, and every school gave us Baklava, nuts, fruits, cookies, kete and anything else they could hand out to us. Since I know quite a few teachers in Ming and Mike just knows everyone- and everyone knows him. We had photo ops galore. Some of the displays were really very beautiful. The children were all in bright colored clothes. There were lots of flower and bright green samina plants. Many of the girls were making traditional food and there was a log butter maker. I liked the lamb shaped cookies ( or bread) can't remember. I also got to play the traditional hard boiled egg game with some school director. Each person takes an egg and then they tap the eggs together and the one whose eggdoesn't break gets to keep both egges. and they go on and challenge the next person with their winning egg. It was kind of fun- low output entertainment. When we were done touring around we went back to Carolyn's school and awaited the coming of the mayor. Carolyn's school director asked us to say good things about the school to the Director, in Azerbaijani. We practiced a little and when he stopped by to assess the display we gave our best performance. I think we did OK.
At the end of the morning we were stuffed with food and still did not have enough hands to carry the left over. We got a couple of plastic bags and then on our way back to Mike's place we gave most of it away to some street children, who even after we gave them a bunch of food still asked for money. We got back to Mike's place and dumped our remaining platter of food on the table. The mother of
one of Mike's co-workers had seen us in town and bestowed upon us an entire platter of cookies, sweets and nuts. We were overwhelmed with food. As we were going guesting in the evening we busied ourselves with making sweets of our own to give to our host- one of the teachers I work with. In the midsts of the baking hubub the neighborhood children were knocking on our door with empty caps hoping we'd fill them with sweets. This is very similar to trick-or-treating. We thought GREAT we can load some of this stuff off on the kids. So Mike filled their hats but then a few minutes later we got another knock and sitting outside our door was a new piece of Baklava in return for the sweets we had given. We were not making much headway on our pile of food.
With make-shift chocolate chip cookies in hand (we make them without brown sugar and with m&ms to keep the cost down) we headed to Sevil's apartment, where again we were stuffed full of food. We met her mother and two children
and I drank wine- which Sevil pounded like a vodka shot , much to our amusement. With left-over plov, dried fruit and more candy and baklava we waddled back to Mike's place and then went to Caroloyn and Jesse's place for a little more socializing. Their host family has built a chay xana/restaurant and they open it up for them to have friends over. So we sat for a while drinking tea with their host father. He's a really nice guy, and he loves to sit and talk with us and make toasts. We called it a night fairly early and went back to sleep off all the food to prepare for the next day of feasting.

Ganja Chamber Orchestra Concert

In the midst of all the Novruz celebrations there was also a concert put on by the Ganja Chamber Orchestra. This musical group puts on concerts 4 or 5 times a year but every time they perform I'm either out of town or I find out too late. There is no published schedule that I know of and I have to rely on word of mouth for any information. The group performs in an old Albanian church that has been renovated with the help from some Norwegian organizations in town. My Norwegian friends are the ones who let me know about the concerts, which always seem to be last minute. This time Mike and I were finally in town for a show.
We weren't sure what to expect and we've learned not to get our hopes up with anything here. But we were pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong this time around. The concert was wonderful. We were so happy to listen to beautiful live music in such nice surroundings. They opened up with a piece by Mozart and went on to perform several other short pieces by Russian and Azeri composers as well as others. There were featured soloists and the hit of the evening was this amazing Tar player. He lit up the stage. What was so unique about the concert was that although I would categorize the music as 'Western classical' every piece, even the Mozart had a subtle Eastern rhythm which added an extra flair.
There was also a group of Norwegian tourists in town for the Easter holiday so the small hall was filled with Norwegians, and we didn't feel like we were in Azerbaijan- we lived here but we were outsiders and here were these tourists who looked kind of like us but spoke a different language, too. It was kind of surreal. Hopefully we'll get to another concert before our time's up.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Naile's Wedding

Naile's wedding was by far the best wedding I've been to in Azerbaijan. Much of that had to do with the fact that I wasn't stuck at at a table by myself with people I didn't know and who didn't speak any English. Being able to converse with friends makes events much more enjoyable. Mike came, too so that was definitely helpful. And this was the first wedding that I was good friends with the bride and Naile was my closest friend in Ganja. Although the wedding was very nice I am very sad to see her go.

Even though this was the best wedding I've been too it still did not differ significantly from all the other weddings I've been to or heard about. The food was the same- salads, kebabs, and plov, the music was the same-very loud and the dancing was the same. There was also the usual entourage of video and still cameras. There were three video cameras in all which blocked most of the action at the head table and frustrated Mike in his pursuit of the ever elusive "perfect shot." The wedding wouldn't need to be videotaped and broadcast live on T.V. if the cameramen weren't blocking the view all the time. So essentially you never see what's going on directly. You have to watch the wedding on one of the many t.v. sets mounted on the walls all around the room.
Naile had arranged for a table just for friends and co-workers from SOROS. So we all sat together, danced together, listened to speeches and took lots of pictures together. At weddings in Azerbaijan all the important people in the different aspects of the bride or grooms life are supposed to give a speech. The fathers give a speech, the mothers, the siblings, the uncles, the grandparents, colleagues, friends. Hasan, the director of SOROS was elected to represent the colleagues and friends. He tried to drag me and another American up there but we refused. We also knew that Hasan could handle speech giving on his own. He's notorious for getting up in any large crowd and pontificating about anything and everything. Tonight was no exception. True to form Hasan gave a lengthy address about Lenkaran and SOROS and America. As I had wagered he delivered the longest monologue of the evening. After the reps from a particular faction gives the speech then those people belonging that group must dance to the song celebrating that relationship. So after Hasan's speech we all got up and danced to the work colleagues song. I even got Mike off his chair!
The unexpected moment of the evening was the Plov presentation. Instead of a traditional Azeri dance it was a Spanish number and to my shock everyone around me loved it! It just re enforces my belief that most Azeris don't really like the traditional music at weddings but no one is daring enough to break from custom and try something new. Maybe in another 100 years or so it will be different. I'm not holding my breath!
The challenge for me was seeing Naile not as herself. It was really strange seeing her all dressed up. As Azeri girls go she dressed pretty casually without a lot of the bling and pizazz that most girls have. Simple beauty. She was also without her usual smile and laughter. What I most treasure in Naile is her sense of humor and we spent many days laughing and joking. Weddings are a non-smiling event. I'm still not 100 percent sure why its improper to smile and laugh- especially for the bride. Females laughing in public is generally considered inappropriate and weddings are considered a solemn occasion so its probably a combination of those things. What was funny was that half the time you could tell Naile was trying very hard NOT to laugh and smile.
But of course the highlight of the evening was the grand finale- the bouquet toss. Unlike in the U.S. the toss is for anyone who is single so the men are jockeying for position along with the ladies. Naile's cousin who is well over 6 feet tall placed himself right up front blocking everyone behind him and he would box out anyone who tried to get in front. But his bullying failed and the flowers tipped off his fingers and into my hands! The first one I've ever caught. I don't think Mike was very happy about it, though. He may bail out before that time comes.
Although the wedding was nice, as with most all weddings I've been to here, I'm never overcome with happiness for the couple, especially the woman. Although being unmarried here has its disadvantages, I've seen few happy marriages
and especially happily married women. I hope
Naile will be happy, I hope more that her new husband treats her with love and respect and I hope his family(they will be living with his parents) will be good to her, too.
Hasan's soliloquy

Aren't we cute!

Here's a picture of me with Seva, Naile's sister. She just came back from studying at Columbia in the U.S. The other two guys are Tural and Farid, friends of Naile and two of my students and softball players. They are both really great guys.

The amazing Spanish plov (pronounced plofe)

Friday, April 04, 2008

Novruz 2008 in Ganja

This year Mike and I had the chance to celebrate Novruz both in Ganja and in Mingechevir. We were lucky we saw anything at all since none of the Azeris we knew had any idea when events were happening in either town. This year the "official" Novruz holiday was on Thursday, March 20th, the vernal equinox. However the Tuesday before was the final Tuesday in the Novruz weekly parties celebrating the 4 elements: earth, wind, fire and water. So essentially the entire week was one big spring "new year" celebration. True to form and of course looking ahead to his upcoming election in the fall, Ilham gave the country 9 days off. So officially from Thursday the 20th-28th were free. However since the 18th and 19th were big party days too, they were essentially days off as well. I realy like Novruz because of its significance to the people. It is one of the few tastes of the ancient culture even before Islam came to this region. Most all of the other holidays here, with the exception of Ramadan and Qurban are political in nature. Under Soviet rule I was told that Azeris were not allowed to celebrate Novruz, so its come back since with quite a lot of fervor. This year Ganja went all out especially with the city decorations and even a 12 meter piece (Hunk?) of Baklava. The Baklava here is not like the kind made in Greece and Turkey. Its similar but I find it sweeter and gooier.
Mike came to town on Tuesday to help me out with my Library opening on Wednesday. I had found out that day from Naile that Wednesday was also going to be the big day for Novruz events in Ganja. No one realy knew for sure when everything was going to happen, for once it wasn't just Mike and I who were out of the loop, so Naile called up the city government to confirm. So on Tuesday night also a big party night Mike and I strolled through the city to get a glimpse of all the festivity preparations. Here are some pictures that Mike took. There was a big tent set up with the famous Baklava and the cops guarding it let us take a peak inside but no pictures until the next morning! So we figured we'd have to arrive early to get there before the throngs of people started eating all the Baklava. According to Naile and her government connections the festivities were to begin at 11:00. We decided to try to be there an hour early to try to get some good pictures of all the activity. When we arrived just after 10 the roads downtown had already been closed and the central square in front of the exectutive power building (the big ugly one in all the pictures) was already very full. The Baklava was unmasked for all to see, quite impressive. A guy on a cherry picker was taking arial views of it and there were still a lot of police milling around quasi guarding it. The makings of a giant bonfire were on center stage, and as we watched men kept dousing the wood with lighter fluid. I think the logs were pretty well saturated by the time they got around to lighting it.

All around the square there were different 'booths' with different organizations and handicrafts. There were also boxers, wrestlers and Taekwondo fighters. Several musical ensembles were arranged in different areas around the square including a marching band type group. A couple of dance schools performed various traditional dances. Then around 11 o'clock a group of 4 men on horseback came riding in and circling the soon-to-be bonfire. I didn't think it was a particularly good idea to have a bunch of horses walking around an inferno, But they didn't seem to see anything wrong with it as you will note from the first picture.

The fire was lit a few minutes later and it was intense. Because of all the gas the logs practicaly incinerated in about 10 minutes. The blaze was incredibly hot- and it was a breezy day so staying to close to the blaze was not a safe idea but the masses came in close, ashes, soot, flames and all. I didn't think being in the midst of a pack of people around a giant blaze was very smart so I moved away to a safe distance. Mike, always more concerned about getting the perfect picture over personal safety, stayed in for some photo-ops.
After the fire we went over to see what was going on with the Baklava. By now the mayor and his contingency had arrived and they were serving it up. The police had organized themselves in a human wall, linked arm and arm around the table to barracade the masses from swarming the Baklava. This had little effect and the people shoved through breaking the police ranks and rushed the Baklava. Some even jumped up on the table and several were shoving huge chunks into grocery bags they had brought. A couple of old women got carted off by the police. It was mass chaos and incredible to watch. We were shocked and amused. I mean- its just Baklava! You can make it at home. We didn't think it was worth pushing and shoving to get in for a piece since we don't really like it that much anyway so we made a quick exit and went to the restaurant for some breakfast/lunch to mull over what we had just witnessed.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Wedding Dresses Galore!

Naile, the very sweet and funny girl I work with, is getting married this weekend. I'm actually excited about the wedding because this is the first bride that I actually know really well and I her wedding wasn't arranged- she actually loves the guy!But he's from Lenkaran, which is a city about as far away from Ganja as you can get- in the South near the Iranian border. After the wedding on Saturday she is moving down there to live with him in a couple of rooms in his parent's house! However, this is pretty normal for the culture. It definitely saves money!
So a couple of weeks ago we went dress shopping around Ganja with Naile's sister Sevinj. The interesting tidbit is that here the bride rents her wedding dress-which makes so much more sense! The rental price is still pretty steep-around 100 bucks for an afternoon/evening. The key is to try and get a dress that hasn't been rented before. If I haven't mentioned it before, the dresses here are amazing- and I mean that in both a good way and a bad way. If you want a gynormous Cinderella-style poofy, blingy gown, this is the place to be! They are really, with few exceptions, incredibly elaborate-the more sparkles the better! They really are eye catching in the store windows- this is also a country I would wager with the most wedding dress shops per capita. This may be due to the fact there are so many weddings. Most couples have at least two big ones- one for the boy's family and the other for the girl's family. Many also have a pretty big party for the engagement. Each one requires a different dress. In the girls wedding the bride can wear any color and usually does not wear white. White is reserved for the boy's wedding which is the final and 'real' wedding (i.e.- the marriage is consummated that night-with a witness to ensure the virginity of the bride!! and a family party given by the boy's family where the wedding sheets are displayed!!!!) Anyway, I digress....Naile decided to wear white for her girl's wedding because most of her relatives will not be able to all the way to Lenkaran to see the boy's wedding. But anyway, after gazing at all of these dresses for so long I was excited at the prospect of actually going into a shop and maybe, just maybe being able to try one on. This is no easy feat because the shop assistants only let girls try on dresses if they are actually having a wedding. But Naile and I weren't above lying! haha!

But as it turns out one of her neighbors worked in a shop and she let both Sevinj and I try dresses on. So I picked a particularly bright one- I liked the color- not necessarily the style. Sadly it didn't really fit. I'm just not built like the tiny Azeri girls here. I think my back is twice the width of most girls here. So needless to say its not a very flattering cut(note to self, arm liposuction and tummy tuck are in order!)Haha! Anyway it was still a fun day and after roaming all around, Naile, the bride, never actually tried one one. Here are some pictures I took until one of the shop ladies yelled at me, maybe the flash will ruin them? Or they are top secret designs that could be copied- like everything already is here???? Anyway, Will have a posting about the wedding up soon!