Monday, April 28, 2008

Back to America...

…For my parents at least. I’m still in Azerbaijan for the next 5 months or so, not that anyone is counting. So I think it is safe to say that my parents’ and aunt’s trip to Azerbaijan was a success. I got to Baku last Thursday with Ashley and we hung out in the hotel until it was time to pick up my mom and dad at the airport. They didn’t have any problems with their visas or their luggage and we were back at the hotel in no time. My dad asked if I wanted to see all the goodies they brought with them then or wait a day until we got to Lankaran. I thought about this for about 1/8 of a second and a few minutes later we were all enjoying a glass of some fine tequila. It was delicious. The perfect appetizer for this deliciousness though, was one of the finest sandwiches I’ve ever enjoyed. That sandwich is known as the Spicy Baconator from Wendy’s. If you haven’t had one, go get one immediately. You won’t be disappointed. It didn’t bother me that the burger was around 24 hours old. It was so good. It also started a week full of much eating. I’m still kinda full.

We decided around 3 a.m. that we should at least lay down and try to sleep for an hour or so before we had to leave to the airport again to pick up Aunt Jean. Her flight was due to get in at 5 but didn’t get in until 6. Due to the long visa line and the fact that her luggage did not arrive with her, we didn’t see her for quite some time and were beginning to worry that she may have missed her flight. She eventually came out and we were on our way back to the airport and back to tequila. We all got some sleep and later went to the Peace Corps office to get phone numbers for the airport and find out when the luggage might make it. They told us to call back the next morning and they would be able to tell us if her luggage was there. The next morning when we called, no one answered. We decided to head over to the airport thinking that was the only option available at the time. We got there and found two very helpful people who took us right to her luggage and thankfully, everything was taken care of. Later that day, Saturday, we headed down to Lankaran.

Friday though, was for cleaning up from all the traveling and doing some touring of Baku. We took a taxi from the hotel to the center of town and walked to the Maiden’s Tower which is in Old City Baku. My parents were there last year as well on their trip here, so they were experts at leading us around. Not really, though. We walked to the top of the tower which has tiny stairwells and doorways and I think Dad and I managed to not hit our heads at all this time. After wandering around Old City for a while, we walked down to the Caspian and along the walkway there for a bit. By this time, it was getting kind of late in the afternoon and everyone was fading fast. We decided to head back to the hotel for a couple hours of rest and some showers before we headed out to one of our favorite gathering places, Tequila Junction. On the walk there, we were able to point out where Ben broke my nose, which I’m sure she enjoyed. A bunch of other volunteers met us there and we ate a ton of nachos, drank a lot of beer and had what can generally be described as a good time. Katie challenged Dad to a chugging contest, so while he sipped his Guinness, she chugged a full beer. It was that kinda night.

We got to Lankaran Saturday afternoon and get everyone settled into their hotel rooms. After wandering over to my house and giving them the big tour, I took my dad and Joyce to get some chickens and bread from one of the nearby tandir places. We devoured three chickens and bread and sat around and talked for a while. Again, everyone seemed pretty tired and by now it was around 9 or a little later. I walked them back to the hotel and made it back to my house without leading anyone into any of the roadside gutters/ditches and went to bed. On Sunday we walked around town a little bit to kill time before we then took a bus up to Isti Su (translates to hot water). We had lunch at our favorite Gutab place and had a couple cocktails. Basically, we showed my parents and aunt what we typically have for lunch during the week. Anyways, Isti Su is a small village about 20-30 minutes away by bus and they have natural hot springs, hence the name. They created small rooms where groups can go in for 10 minutes at a time and soak and as we say, replenish, refresh and revive your soul. It feels pretty good. Afterwards we walked back up and waited a while for the bus to come to take us back into the city. By then it was dinner time, so we all headed to the new Turkish restaurant in town. This took a lot of time but the food was pretty good. They forgot to make one of our pizzas so we had to wait much longer than we usually do, but everything worked out. We even got to play with one of their pet rabbits they keep in the restaurant. Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel where we played a couple games of Yahtzee in the hotel restaurant. It was a good end to a good day.

On Monday I introduced everyone to my office and gave the grand tour of the city of Lankaran. At night, my office took us out to dinner where we ate and drank a bunch. The night ended kind of early since we needed to get my aunt back to the airport by 11 the next morning. We left Lankaran around 5:30 and were there in plenty of time. After saying goodbye, we picked up Ashley and were on our way to Sheki to see Magda and Charlie and show my parents more of Azerbaijan. We even helped move Magda into her new apartment. After checking out the sites of Sheki (climbing a mountain, old buildings, etc.) we packed up and were on the move again. Our next destination was Gence, where Ben was our gracious host. There was only enough time to spend one day there, but we saw most of the city and had a couple great meals. This ended the traveling portion of the trip and before we knew it, it was time to head back to Baku to send mom and dad off back to America. It was a great week though, for sure.

I finally made it back to Lankaran and was able to rest up a little bit and catch up on happenings at the office. I couldn’t rest long though, because I had to prepare myself for two weddings that week. On the 16th, my friend Ziya took me to a village wedding. We took a bus about 20 minutes out of town and went to his friend’s house. The groom was there, Ziya’s neighbor, and about 25 other men. We sat around eating, and giving toasts to the camera, me included, and at the end of all that, we went to a little wedding place where all the women and music were. We danced a bit and after a couple hours of that, we were off. I got home around 1 or so, but had a great time. Before we went to the wedding part, Ziya took me to his house where I met his father, wife and baby boy, Ujal. I put a picture or two of him up here. And yes, he’s a White Sox fan as you can tell by the apparel. Two nights later, Friday night, I went to another wedding. When we first moved to Lankaran, the AZ2 volunteers introduced us to Fuad, a friend of theirs who also speaks really good English. He helped us out with a lot of stuff as we got acclimated to our new surroundings and has been a great friend. So Fuad’s wedding was Friday and that was also a great time. Lots of food, as usual, lots of drinking, pretty common and definitely lots of dancing. Tim, Ashley and I had a lot of fun and we definitely showed off our dance moves as much as possible. The next morning, though, I was back on my way to Gence to celebrate Ben’s birthday, go to Qazakh to play soccer with Katie and a bunch of kids there, then back to Gence, then back to Lankaran again. Then, after just another couple of days of rest, I had to go back to Baku. I needed to go to the Russian embassy to fill out paperwork and start processing my visa for my trip to Russia in a month or so. Everything worked out great, and so now I’m starting to get really excited for the trip.
I’m back in Lankaran now, and things are finally settling down, but only a little bit. This month is sure to be busy again and it all starts tomorrow when a few friends come down to spend the week in Lankaran. On Friday, we will all head up to Barda to begin the softball season which is always a lot of fun. This Wednesday, we are going to play kickball at the orphanage that we had the play day at a month or so ago. Hopefully the weather will be nice. The past couple days have been gorgeous, but it started raining a little bit tonight. Tomorrow, I’m supposed to have a meeting with the ExCom to discuss plans for the sports league. We just found out last week that we officially received permission from the city to move ahead with the project and work directly with the schools, so now the real work begins. Should be interesting. Sorry for the lateness of this post, but hopefully it is full of plenty of information and joy to keep you busy and content until my next post. Pictures are: Ashley and I enjoying our amazingly delicious Spicy Baconators, Ziya and son, Ujal and me, Fuad and his wife Nigar, me dancing at the first wedding and then our friend Mobil, Ashley and me with Fuad and Nigar.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Back in the land of AZ

And back to reality. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Spain and will get into a little more detail soon, but I thought you all might be interested to hear my latest housing issues. Take a guess, water, gas or electricity. Well, this time it’s water. Again. I returned home from all my travels (when I got back from Spain, I quickly turned around and went to Baku for a couple nights to watch some March Madness on Saturday night) to find that I had no water left in my big water tank. No problem, I’ll just turn on the well pump, I thought to myself. So I plugged in the pump only to find that it is no longer functioning. So once again, I am out of water. I would like to say I will have it fixed this week, but I am leaving again on Thursday to meet up with my parents and aunt who will be here for a while to visit. Needless to say, I’m quite excited to see them again. Plus it should be a good time showing them around the country. Now on to Spain.

We left Baku around 6 in the morning and flew on to Moscow. We had to land for a couple hours in a town about an hour away from Moscow because of bad weather. It didn’t really matter though since we had a 7 hour layover so we weren’t in danger of missing our flight to Madrid. When we finally did get to Madrid, we met up with Joyce’s friend Nicole and her friend Sarah. Our original plan called for us to then catch a bus immediately to Sevilla, but we had a small problem finding the bus station and figuring out the Metro. We finally did, but it was too late. Little did we know, it would end up being a trend for the vacation… the whole getting lost and sleeping in bus station thing. We decided to wait it out in the bus station for 6 hours or so and we had some Doritos and tequila thanks to Nicole to keep us warm and busy. We had to sit outside which got a little cold, but what can you do. We finally got on the bus and made it to Sevilla where we had a hotel waiting for us. Unfortunately, we had no idea where the hotel was and after waiting for a taxi for an hour or so, decided to hoof it in the semi-correct direction, then completely wrong direction. What didn’t help was the parades going on in town that crowded the streets and all of us being tired from travel. We finally made it though, and checked in without any problems.

Joyce’s friend Caroline was going to meet up with us in Sevilla and gave us some directions, which of course, we could not follow. So Joyce and I wandered around for a couple hours, ate some food (tapas are freaking awesome, by the way) and went back to the hotel where Caroline happened to be waiting for us. Good times. Funny story, while we were eating it was after midnight which meant it was St. Patrick’s Day. I tried to order an Irish car bomb, in Spanish, and got laughed at. The bartender’s eyes popped out of his head when I said car bomb in Spanish, and I tried to explain how to make one. They finally got someone that spoke a little English to help me out and I tried to get behind the bar to make one, but eventually gave up. The next morning, Caroline took us around a little bit and showed us how to get around town a little bit. We ate some breakfast then wandered for a bit. Turns out, when Joyce and I got lost, we were about 5 minutes away from the hotel. Go figure. The rest of the day we walked ALL over the place and saw pretty much all of Sevilla. We took a lot of pictures of old buildings, parks and churches and at night we watched the parades celebrating Holy Week. There are a few pictures of the guys in robes and the floats they carried around with candles. It was all pretty impressive. After that, it was time to say goodbye to our nice hotel room and leave for Valencia.

Every year in Valencia, they have a festival called Las Fallas. I was very excited when I learned that our trip would be corresponding exactly with this festival. We were able to plan our trip so that we would be in Valencia on the 19th, which is the last and biggest night for the festival. All over the town, they build these giant paper machet floats. They are all judged and a winner is selected, although I have no idea what basis they use or which float one, or if I even saw the winner. Either way, at night time, they light them all on fire. All of them, except the winner of course. So all day long there are people everywhere, checking out the floats, drinking beer and throwing off firecrackers. They were the kind that are somewhere in between black cats and small sticks of dynamite. It was awesome. Whenever it was time to light one of the floats, they would set off fireworks from that site so at night you can hear and see fireworks all over the place. We staked ourselves a nice spot right in front of one of the bigger floats and were able to see them set up the explosives and watch from the front row as they blew it up. They had fire hoses on either side and were constantly spraying the buildings, the float and everywhere around it. Keep in mind these things are built in the middle of these old European streets, so the buildings are practically right on top of the fire. I can’t imagine something like this going on back at home. Crazy fun. After the fireworks, we were all pretty exhausted. I was starving so Bonnie, Arzu and I stopped off at a Burger King (I know, I know, sometimes you gotta give in, you know?). Everyone went back to the bus station where we had a few hours to kill before our bus left for Valencia. The one guard at the bus station was quite vigilant though and made sure that no one got to rest their head or lay down in any form at all. If you slept for one second, this guy was all over you yelling something in Spanish until you sat up right. There were tons of people at the station though, so he couldn’t really keep up and we all got to rest our eyes for at least a little bit.
We finally made it to Barcelona and met up with Dave (my cousin) without any problems. We gathered our stuff and went to his house where we were immediately greeted with showers and beer. Not a bad combo. We went out a little bit that night to some of the bars, but we got a late start so we didn’t get to see the usual places Dave heads to. Friday night though, we got the full tour. It was a great time and I can see that Barcelona would be a fun place to live. That Saturday, we all kind of hit a wall. It didn’t help that most of us slept until around 4 or so in the afternoon (we got in pretty late that night). We decided that a relaxing day wouldn’t be all that bad, so we made dinner in the apartment and hung out all night. It was still a lot of fun and re-energizing. Nicole and Sarah had to leave early the next morning anyways, so they weren’t really interested in going out all night again. On Sunday we got a pretty good tour of Barcelona. Dave took us to Park Guell and a couple of the other major landmarks. It would have been nice to have another day to walk around, but we saw pretty much everything we wanted to. Barcelona, I think, was still my favorite city to visit though.

Monday morning brought with it another early bus ride back to Madrid. We got there early enough in the afternoon that we could wander and check out some of the major sites before we had to be at the airport, so that’s exactly what we did. Arzu went shopping, since she had already been to Madrid, but Joyce and I did a fair amount of wandering. I don’t think we even got lost. Well, maybe just a little bit. We got to see the big palace, cathedral, parks and watched some old guys play bocce ball. You can tell they go out there all day, every day. It was pretty amusing. We got to the airport in plenty of time to catch our flight and made it back to Azerbaijan. It felt good to finally get home and sleep in my bed, but it also would have been nice to spend more time in Spain. I would have liked to see a bull fight, but that will have to wait till next time. I’ve attached a bunch of pictures and have a ton more on my computer. The pictures are: a bridge in Sevilla, a parade with the guys in their robes, a float with candles and the Virgin Mary, the bull ring in Sevilla, a palace, the view from the top of the towers in Valencia, two of the floats that they set on fire, one of the streets in Valencia with tiny booths for shopping on the sides, the float we saw get lit up, Joyce, Sarah, Dave and Arzu out in Barcelona, pictures from the park designed by Gaudi and a statue in Madrid that is the city symbol.

The excitement doesn’t stop there though. Tomorrow morning, I am heading to Baku so I can meet my Mom and Dad at the airport. A few hours after them, Aunt Jeanie arrives as well. I’m excited to see them all again and can’t wait till they get here. We’ll spend Friday in Baku, then on Saturday we will head to Lankaran for a few days. Aunt Jeanie will fly out on Tuesday, and then my parents and I will be moving on to Sheki and Ganja. I figured since they have been to Lankaran before and have seen pretty much all it has to offer, I would show them other parts of the country this time. It should be a lot of fun, as always. Be assured that I’ll let you all know in a little over a week. Till then, go White Sox!