This is a narrative I wrote about my PC life for future volunteers for the AZ PC website. I thought I’d post it here too.

“It is that true, real inspiration and growth only comes from adversity and from challenge, from stepping away from what’s comfortable and familiar and stepping out into the unknown.” –Ben Saunders, Poler Explorer

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You have probably read or heard that your Peace Corps service will be the most challenging and most rewarding experience of your life. It’s true. You have also probably read about volunteer’s successes and have envisioned your own similar successes. While you will accomplish great things as a Peace Corps Volunteer and have amazing experiences, life during this time will also be overwhelming andtaxing. This experience will stretch you. Some days you’ll have notable break-throughs and feel wonderful. Other days you’ll ask yourself out of frustration and disappointments, “Why should I leave the house today?” I want to explain what has gotten me through these hard times to not only finish my 2 year commitment but also to finish my 6 month extension.

I haven’t had many big successes in my service, at least none that I could take credit for or look at for validation when I felt low. Participants for all my classes slowly stopped coming; only 2 projects for my organization received funding; I was struggling to increase my work in the community; my director/counterpart and I argued on and off for 2 years. My second year was full of let down and a 6 month severe depression. Many times I haven’t lived up to my own expectations of my professional and personal goals. I wasn’t doing the community organizing activities I thought I would be doing, and I wasn’t improving my language ability as much as I planned. I have felt unwanted and belittled by my partnering organization and have felt unappreciated and taken advantage of by others. So what has kept my here? What caused me to extend?

My underlying drive to keep going has been the personal relationships I developed. I step out of my house for Orkhan and Mehemmed who are curious and passionate about learning and bettering their community. I leave my house for Tunjay who is hard-working, seeks out growth opportunities, and is persistent in pursuing his goals. I keep trying for Gulchin who has different ideas from her society about life and has the gumption to live her own way. I’ve stayed because when I felt like no one in the culture could understand me, my host family did. They have been there to support me and share similar experiences. These people and more remind me what I am doing here. Yes, I am here to work, but most importantly I am here to build relationships and spread ideas. By building relationships I have truly helped people by supporting them and making opportunities for them to gain skills and see their dreams realized. Certain people will be excited to work with you. Those people make staying worth it. The most lasting, impactful change will be with the people you connect with.

Specific people’s excitement to work with me is also why I extended. A group of IDPs sought me out with an idea to do a project. They had seen the opportunities that could transpire by working with a foreigner. They had a desire. At times working together was frustrating, and the project didn’t turn out the way I wanted (it’s not as sustainable as it needs to be). However, their desire to work with me always came through with every meeting and class. The excitement in their eyes shone brightly every time I arrived to work.

By leaving your house, you will be stretched to your limits. But that’s a reason why you joined Peace Corps. You wanted a challenge; you wanted a growth experience. You will change as much as you change other people. There will be more than a few days where you hide from the world and won’t leave your house. That’s fine. Those days will help you recollect. Don’t let the challenges, the failures, the frustrations distract you or tear you down from your purpose. In order to help you through your hard times, create a list of reasons you’re here. Have a picture to remind you. You are making an impact even if you can’t see it.

Always remember, each day is different from the next. Life here is full of unexpected turn of events—good and bad. On good days, I’m thankful for those impromptu experiences. On bad days, I know the next day will not be the same.

I didn’t achieve every goal I set out to from this experience. I also experienced things I never had imagined. I learned more about myself and my abilities. I have come out a stronger, more confident individual. By leaving my house, I have experienced more of life. I have more stories; I have seen more places; I have gotten to know great people. This experience has caused me to reshape my definition of success to be what the UCLA basketball coach John Wooden had explained as “Peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction and knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.” I did my best and am happy I had this experience.

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As I get ready to COS (close of service) today, I’ve done a lot of reflecting on my time here. In fact, I’m a little forced to reflect because of all the exit interview questions and questions from staff, PCVs, and locals. While I was reflecting, I realized how my service in Azerbaijan has changed me. It has changed my character and some of my habits. These are some new habits I’ll be taking back with me to America.

1. Sharing more
We are taught to share as kids in America, but that doesn’t even equal to how kids here are taught to share. There is always enough to share. I once split a mandarin between 4 people. On a bus, people have asked me if I wanted some of their newly opened soft drink; to me, a complete stranger, they are offering to share their drink. Even old women on the bus who bring road food have offered to share what they have with me. I want to keep the mentality that there is always enough to share.

2. Brewing tea
I had a thought this past month about kitchen necessities when I accept an internship in D.C. I thought, “I definitely need to buy a tea pot and kettle to boil water. I have a coffee maker from college, but I probably won’t need that. What would I do with a coffee maker?” I will always love coffee, but I have officially become a tea person.

3. Living minimally
I had a lot of clothes in America. I do mean, A LOT. In college I only did laundry every 1 ½ months. During my service I have learned to live with less. I only had the clothes I could bring in 2 suitcases. I only had the kitchen items given to me by past volunteers and a few new items. I lived with less even though at times I didn’t need to. I know it will be a struggle to not fall back into buying things I don’t really need, not to live that consumer driven life. I’ll give it a good try!

4. Baking with estimates
I decided to not bring measuring cups or spoons for baking. Other volunteers brought them, but I decided I didn’t need them. I was going to bake the way Azerbaijani women bake—without measuring cups. They do have ways of measuring such as using a real cup as “a cup”, a big spoon as 1 tbsp, and a little spoon as 1 tsp. This is the way I have been baking, making it up as I go. It’s also the way I’ve learned to cook.

5. Slippers
The most amazing inventions ever!! Why did I not wear slippers before? They keep my feet warm, and I’m always so very very cold.

I’ve enjoyed my time in Azerbaijan and wouldn’t change it for the world! It has challenged me and changed me in ways I never expected and still don’t even know. Here’s to 33 months of joy, challenges, and sadness! You’ll forever be my second home Azerbaijan.

Being in Azerbaijan for 33 months, I have experience much of what Azerbaijan has to offer. I will miss many things about living here, and I wanted to share a list of my favorite things.

1. The call to prayer
The call to prayer plays three times a day. It’s just such a beautiful sound over the loudspeakers, and it reminds me of the constant presence of God in my life.

Singing the call to prayer (in Turkey)

Singing the call to prayer (in Turkey)

2. Instant friendships and sharing food on buses
I have sat next to many people on the buses. I always love when the old women will talk to me and share their food. It makes the long bus ride a little more comfy, and I don’t starve.

3. Herds of animals in the road
Shepherds taking their animals out to pasture or back home via the main road is something that just doesn’t happen in America. It is such a normal part of life here. We must stop our car in order for the animals to walk around it.

The sheep are coming! Stop the car!!

The sheep are coming! Stop the car!!

The sheep have gone

The sheep have gone

4. Daily warm fresh bread
Not having fresh bread everyday will be sad. Fresh bread is the best. I have eaten half a loaf when it is hot!

5. Paklava
Although I only eat it during the Novruz Holiday, it is one of my favorite deserts.

Pakhlava

Pakhlava

6. Uch inek cheese
There is a type of cheese here called “uch inek” (3 cow). It became my cheese for poor man’s macaroni and cheese; it was my cheap go-to when I didn’t know what to eat; it livened up my salads and any dish that lacked flavor.

In my last few weeks, I have visited friends for the last time and visited regions on my bucket list. One of my Azerbaijani friends talked about a place in the Tovuz region (the region is the following western region after Shamkir) that is beautiful. He told me it is more beautiful than Gedebey. How could I not be interested in going there? He agreed to take my friend and me to this place. Although it was a rainy day, the landscape and lush colors were great! Azerbaijan has such amazing and diverse topography, but it can be difficult to see it because many of these places are not accessible with public transportation. Here are some pictures.

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Tovuz 310

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One of the last projects I have been working on—all the way up to my final days in country—is a photography course. I and another Peace Corps Volunteer designed and implemented this project together. We are teaching the students what makes for a good picture and how to take good photos. A major problem we have been having is that they are not taking enough photos. There are several reasons for this. One is that they cannot take the cameras home (in fear of the cameras not being returned), so they have limited time to take photos. Another reason is that they think there is nothing interesting to take pictures of in Shamkir. For one of our classes, we decided to take the students to a neighboring region—Gedebey. In Gedebey there are mountains and forests, so our goal was to take landscape photos. Just taking the students out of their every day really motivated them to take more photos. At the beginning to they would take, at the most, 20 pictures. On our trip to Gedebey, they all took over 70 pictures! A few of them even started experimenting with lights and shadows. Here is some photos of Gedebey, of the students taking pictures, and some of the student’s photographs.

Gedebey, Photography Students

Gedebey, Photography Students

Gedebey, at a natural spring

Gedebey, at a natural spring

Gedebey, Sheep

Gedebey, Sheep

Gedebey, Sheep!

Gedebey, Sheep!

Gedebey

Gedebey

Gedebey, PCV MaryEllen

Gedebey, PCV MaryEllen

Gedebey, Photography student

Gedebey, Photography student

Gedebey

Gedebey

Gedebey

Gedebey

Gedebey, Sheep

Gedebey, Sheep

Gedebey

Gedebey

Gedebey, MaryEllen and I

Gedebey, MaryEllen and I

All of Shamkir!

All of Shamkir!

Gedebey, photography students

Gedebey, photography students

Student A's photo

Student A’s photo

Student A's photo

Student A’s photo

Student A's photo

Student A’s photo

Student B's photo

Student B’s photo

Student B's photo

Student B’s photo

Student B's photo

Student B’s photo

Student C's photo

Student C’s photo

Student C's photo

Student C’s photo

Student C's photo

Student C’s photo

For one of my souvenirs from Azerbaijan and of my Peace Corps service, I bought a carpet. This section of the world has been known for centuries for its carpet making. I originally thought I couldn’t afford it because in my mind carpets are big and for a specific purpose in a house. On a visit to Barda to see one of my friends, I arrived just in time to be whisked away to a local carpet factory where my friends wanted to buy carpets. As they looked at carpet patterns and talked about sizes, I decided I also needed a carpet. This carpet factory would work with you to change some of the colors plus you could write something on your carpet. I not only bought a carpet, some of my family bought carpets.

Here are some pictures of the carpet factory and the weavers. This carpet factory is run completely by women, and the weavers are refugees from Agdam (a city in ownership dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia).

Carpet Factory

Carpet Factory

2 women work on 1 rug, typically

2 women work on 1 rug, typically

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Guba design rug

Guba design rug

Garabagh design rug

Garabagh design rug

Sheki design rug

Sheki design rug

My organization is a non-governmental organiztaion (NGO) with a focus on youth and NGO development. When I first got to site (2 years and 3 months ago), my organization had already surveyed the community and thought of a project to do. They wanted to make kindergarten classes to prepare children for primary school. Many of the other “kindergartens” in Shamkir and Azerbaijan do not teach the children and are more like day care centers. Actually preparing children to enter primary school was something many parents wanted for their children. I helped my organization write a grant and we eventually implement the project. It’s been very successful because at these school preparation classes the children are taught English, basic computer skills, and how to read and write in Azerbaijani. We have had 2 years of classes and are looking to expand the classes so more children can join! These are some pictures of the children’s Novruz Holiday show.

Talking about Spring arriving while holding wheat grass

Talking about Spring arriving while holding wheat grass

The boys

The boys

Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes song

Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes song

Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes song

Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes song

Sisers singing an Azerbaijani song

Sisers singing an Azerbaijani song

Dancing

Dancing

The boys pretendig to dance

The boys pretendig to dance

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Dancing

Dancing

Dancing

Dancing

Singing an English song

Singing an English song

Each family brought a tray of sweets, fruit, and Semeni (wheat grass)

Each family brought a tray of sweets, fruit, and Semeni (wheat grass)

The show is done and they get to eat the sweets

The show is done and they get to eat the sweets

Since January I have been doing a recycled craft class in my friend’s region, Barda, once a month. I decided to do it there because I do not have interested kids in Shamkir, and I really like to do crafts. THe crafts are made from 1 main recycled material. January it was bottles; February it was toilet tube rolls; March was aluminum cans and juice boxes. The kids think the class is interesting and have made some great stuff! Here are some pictures.

January art: penguin and candle holder

January art: penguin and candle holder

January

January

January: Penguins

January: Penguins

January: Penguins

January: Penguins

January: Candle holders

January: Candle holders

February: Cars

February: Cars

February: Car

February: Car

February: Cars

February: Cars

March: Guitar and drum

March: Guitar and drum

March: Guitar and drum

March: Guitar and drum

It all started when I went to pay for electricity at the post office.  My electrical system is a pre-paid system.  I take my card to the post office to put money on it.  At home I insert the card into the electrical box, and the box recognizes my new balance.  However I, and only me, have one extra step to do.  Before I go to the post office, I had to walk the 2 or 3 kilometers to the AzerEnergy head office.  When I go there, they take my card, put it in the magical box, hit some keys, and give it back to me.  By doing this, they made my card readable.  For some reason, after I put my card into my electrical box at home, the card becomes unreadable by the post office.  I don’t know why.  It was just what I had to do.  I did this for a year.  Then a new problem arose.

 

I walked to the AzerEnergy office like normal and gave them my card.  They told me they could not fix it this time.  There was a problem, and I had to give them about $170.  I didn’t understand what the problem was or what the $170 was for.  I called my Azerbaijani friend who also knows English and gave the phone to the AzerEnergy guy.  My friend said that I had to come back with my landlord, and we made an appointment for me to do so.  I came back, but my landlord did not come.  I ask again what was wrong and figured out there was something wrong with the box at my house and they needed to look at it.  I had to come another time with my landlord.  I finally got my landlord to come to the AzerEnergy office, and he went around trying to figure out what the problem was.  He was unhappy to pay $170 and told me I had to give him the money.  I then got Peace Corps involved.  They told my landlord that he had to pay for it.  We had to go back to the AzerEnergy office and fill out an application for the inspectors to come and look at the box.  That took 2 more trips because my landlord isn’t happy about doing this.

 

The electricity problem started February 1st.  These activities have taken place over the course of February.  The problem is still not solved.  My neighbor told me the inspector men came and said there is a problem with the electrical box.  I don’t know what the next step is.  I don’t know what is happening.  I don’t know if my landlord will give the money to fix it.  What I do know is, I still have electricity for now.  I conserve as much as possible.  The warning light on the box is now lite.  Life may get more interesting.  I’m not freaking out. Truly.  Honestly.  I’m probably too mellow for how this could turn out.  I know I can’t control what’s going to happen, so I have let the stress go.  If I have to move, I’ll move.  If I get to stay, I’ll stay.

 

By reading my last two blogs and now this one, my life may seem like a giant mess and problem-filled.  Well, as of now, it is.  These problems are surmountable.  For the most part…  They bring a little more spice into a rather simple conventional life.  They make you more appreciative of the luxuries and glad when you finally get to use some of those luxuries.  During these times, I am reassured about people’s niceness.  People—friends, strangers, and neighbors alike—are helpful.

I get my water from a tank.  I have to fill this tank up by plugging in a pump that brings the water from a bigger community water tank.  Everyone in my block does this to pump water into their private tanks.  We all share this big community water tank.  When the water truck comes around to fill the big water tank, we all pitch in 2-3 manat.  At some point 2 weeks ago or so, we emptied the big water tank.  The water truck hasn’t come to fill the tank up.  My private water tank is now empty.  I have NO water.  It took me three days of trying to pump water into my private tank with no positive result to finally ask my neighbor what happened with the water.  She told me the whole deal.  The neighborhood has no water, and no one knows when the truck will come. 

Now I need to find water.  My neighbor lent me a 5 liter bottle of water for the day.  I used it to have tea and wash the 3 day pile up of dishes in my sink.  I went to the store and bought a 19 liter bottle of water so that I can have safe drinking water until I figure out what to do about:

  1. Taking a shower (since it has been a week and I SMELL! When you can smell yourself, you know it’s time to shower),
  2. Doing my laundry
  3. Flushing the toilet
  4. Normal everyday stuff that will still happen

Luckily I have some friends who work as teachers at the Baku-Oxford School in Shamkir.  They live in nice cottages 5 minutes from me and let me take a hot shower and do my laundry in a washing machine.  I was very grateful for that!  My neighbor also told me about a spicket to get free water from that is close to my house.  SCORE! 

My plan from now on:

  1. Buy 2 or 3 5 liter water containers to keep water in
  2. Fill up the 19 liter water bottle and maybe the 8 liter pail
  3. I can do the dishes, laundry, and bucket baths with the spicket water
  4. I can drink and use in food the water I bought at the store
  5. I am figuring out a list of water-less food to make

This should last me a while.  I get to use the water-conserving skills I learned as a kid while camping.  I’m hoping we don’t go 2 weeks or more without water.  Inshallah! 

It’s not abnormal for a volunteer not have water in their house.  Some of the volunteers who live in villages had to have water containers and carry water in from a communal spicket.  I never envied them.  Looks like I’ll become a real volunteer soon.  Just another one of those things that makes me say, “Morgan, you should have left in November with the rest of your group!” 😉

About this blog:

Salam!
This blog is about my Peace Corps service in Azerbaijan. You'll be able to read about my journey as well as view some pictures.

The title of the site "Making wool from eggs" comes from an Azerbaijan folklore. Someone would say it about a person who is very talented and is seeming to do the impossible. For me, this is something to aspire to.

Please stop by frequently and comment!

Where in the world I am

Azerbaijan

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Disclaimer

The opinions and views on this blog are completely my own and do not reflect any position of the US government or the Peace Corps.

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Mailing address:

I'm in Shamkir!

I would love letters and such if you want to write them. If so, please ask me for my address or if you know my mother, you can ask her.