I’m writing this as I sit in my bedroom in the 4th-floor apartment of a family in Masalli, Azerbaijan. The room is about the same size as my bedroom back in Minneapolis – 14 ft by 10 ft – but that’s where the resemblance ends. Here, I have an oriental rug that covers the bare floor, a wardrobe instead of a closet, an ornate light fixture, plus floor length drapes on one wall to conceal a door to the apartment’s small kitchen. My bedroom was once the dining room of my host family, a young couple with 2 school-age children. I have been living with them in Masalli since December 10th, 2010, the day after I was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
I arrived in Azerbaijan in September along with 60 other trainees for 10 weeks of intensive language and cultural training by the Peace Corps staff in Azerbaijan. My assignment to teach English in secondary schools meant that I also attended technical sessions covering the latest language teaching methods. All the while I was living with a family in Sumgayit who had been approved by the Peace Corps to serve as my hosts. As I reflect on those first days, I marvel that I got through it since my initial lack of language skills magnified every situation. My few words in Azeri – Salam and cox sag olun (hello and thank you) – plus pointing, smiling and laughing got me through each day.
I suspect that Peace Corps Volunteers like me encounter different conditions than the first volunteers of 50 years ago. Most noticeable is the use of the internet to communicate regularly with my family, friends, and Wedge neighbors. It’s oh so easy to take photos, upload them, and send them around the world via email. I walk to an internet cafe once a week and pay a fee since there is no Wi-fi around. Occasionally, the power goes off while I’m there, so I count that as a semi-hardship. I’m simply happy to have internet access close by.
But I would not be in Azerbaijan as a Peace Corps Volunteer if life here were the same as it is in Minneapolis. This country is still finding its way 20 years after the demise of the Soviet Union. The capital city of Baku has world class amenities thanks to the gas and oil resources under the Caspian Sea, but the rural villages have not enjoyed those benefits.
Eight years ago, the Peace Corps was invited by the government and today 130 volunteers are here working with Azerbaijani counterparts as English teachers and as community economic and youth development workers. The Peace Corps’ goals are the same throughout the 80 countries in the world where there are current volunteers: to train people in the countries where we serve, to help them learn about Americans, and to help Americans know more about people in other countries.
Alas, I cannot write this article without mentioning snow. I have been following the weather news in MN and WI and even saw the collapsed metrodome on Azerbaijani TV. What can I say when my village of Masalli did not see a snowflake until Feb. 3rd which is unusual weather also.
I will end by offering kudos to the places I miss in the Wedge area: Isles Buns and Coffee, Common Roots Cafe, and First Tech come quickly to my mind for great local businesses I’ve patronized.
Margaret aka Peggy Reinhardt
LHENA resident temporarily serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Azerbaijan