Peace Corps Azerbaijan
March 12, 2007 11:37 AM   Subscribe

So, despite your advice, I ended up declining my first Peace Corps offer. But good news! I've been given an assignment in Azerbaijan that I've accepted.

I depart June 23, and in the meantime, I'm trying to get as much info as I can on the country.

Of course, I'm talking to RPCVs in my area (in fact, luckily enough, I just found someone who has just returned from Azerbaijan), but I'm wondering if any of you have any experience with the country, or any extra input. What should I know going over? Heck, what kinds of questions should I ask the RPCVs that I know of here? Thanks in advance!
posted by wandering steve to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've been there as a tourist for about a week. It strikes me as two totally different places between Baku and the rest of the country.

Pretty interesting place on the whole between the cave art overlooking the Caspian and all of the bizarre geological stuff going on - Mud Volcanoes, Water the burns, etc.

Oh and crazy pictures of the leader everwhere, which used to serve as a bit of a warmup for the insanity to come in Turkmenistan

The Absheron Peninsula (where the bulk of the population lives) is supposedly the most polluted place on earth. It is pretty gross. I remember everything smelling like pesticide.

On the plus side Baku is probably the last place with real western amenities until you get to Beijing. And an astonishing array of scary looking oil workers in town to spend their money on booze and women.

I would recommend the guidebook "Azerbaijan" by Mark Ellliot published by Trailblazer over the Lonely Planet offering. I had an entertaining interaction with the border guards due the LP's inclusion of a seperate section for Nagarno-Karabagh.
posted by JPD at 12:01 PM on March 12, 2007

Congratulations! You're in for a wild trip.

I don't know about Azerbaijan, but I recommend asking questions on the Lonely Planet thorntree forum, and the Tripadvisor Azerbaijan forum.

As for questions to ask RPCVs (or current PCVs who might be in email contact) here are some questions you might want answered:

- What kind of clothing should I bring?
- Does the climate vary much by region or time of year? (And see clothing question again.)
-Any advice on relating to women in Azerbaijan - anything I should know?
-Is there any food/beverages I should bring with me? Or cooking utensils I should bring?
-Am I likely to have electricity?
-How is PC Azerbaijan re: treatment of PCVs?
-Are there regional houses (where PCVs can stay and regroup, around the country)?
-Anything besides clothing/food/beverages I should pack?
-Does PC have a library?
-What's the best thing about PC Azerbaijan? What's the worst thing?
-What's the life of an English teacher/PCV like in Azerbaijan? (You're doing ESL, right?)
-What's the main thing you wished you had known before hand?
- Are you afraid of anything in Azerbaijan?
-Are there any resources/books that would help my ESL in Azerbaijan that I should bring?

Etc. Just brainstorming the type of questions I asked or wished I'd asked before doing PC.
posted by Amizu at 12:55 PM on March 12, 2007

What should I know going over?

It’s in the middle of an oil boom; its GDP per head jumped 34.6% in 2006. You’ve been offered an opportunity to get relatively wealthy, if you can pick up sufficient Azeri and Russian and should you be prepared to hustle for a good job and drop the Peace Corps once you're over there.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 1:27 PM on March 12, 2007

I've worked there, or Baku at least.

All I can say is sudden oil wealth does strange things to a society, not all of them good. And going straight from amoral soviet totalitarianism to thuggish kleptocracy makes it worse. Dramatically weakens the state, communities, families, morals. I don't know the villages and towns (where you'll presumably be) as well, but I'd be prepared for a lot of resentment and anger that everyone else is getting wealthy except them. Understand that for most Azeris, their only knowledge of the United States comes from Soviet propaganda, TV shows and movies like Dallas, and overpaid oil company employees. They'll be confused about why you are there.

You'll probably be shunted into teaching English. Try to hook up with an NGO that is doing some kind of civic organizing or community building.

And go to Georgia as often as possible to remind yourself that life can be beautiful.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 2:03 PM on March 12, 2007

Ask our k8t.
posted by klangklangston at 3:30 PM on March 12, 2007

Best answer: Thanks Klangklangston. :)

AZ is one of the countries that I've spent a lot of time in. I've never been a PCV but I've been hanging around the Caucasus for over 10 years and have encountered many.

Good news - Azerbaijani as a language is really easy AND it is so close to Turkish that it may be useful beyond Peace Corps. If you have time, try to pick up some Russian too. Lots of people in Baku have good English skills as well. Baku is pretty commericalized compared to Yerevan and Tbilisi and has a lot of shopping, dining, etc. that pleases a foreigner. You can even use a credit card occasionally and there are ATMs in a lot of locations in central Baku.

I would recommend for reading material to look in to Tom Goltz's Azerbaijan Diary and Tom DeWaal's Black Garden.

Azerbaijan is very safe and people will be very kind. The urban/rural divide is extreme, but personally I prefer being out of Baku. You'll probably be placed in a rural area. Ganja is a great remote town, by the way, and you can find some of the "Western" goods that you may desire. Honestly though, I could care less about getting Crest toothpaste, personally.

Peace Corps hasn't been in AZ as long as many of its neighbors. This is good and bad. The villages aren't used to having a PCV but at the same time they won't have stereotypes. Are you teaching English or doing business planning?

Post Soviet states are corrupt, as others have eluded to, but dwelling on it can be a real downer. Same goes for living conditions. Your electricity, water, phone, internet (especially internet) etc. won't work sometimes (and by sometimes, I mean at least a few times a week). This is just part of life that you're going to have to deal with. PC will tell you - just try to accomplish 3 things each day and one of them can be brushing your teeth.

Similar to not being able to get a lot done in a day, don't have high hopes for having a big tangible impact. The fact is that you are entering their world. People may not be interested what you have to offer. If you're teaching English, remember that you are putting a local tutor out of business. If you're teaching in a school, remember that the director (principal) and other teachers may not be glad that you are there and trying to set up a PTA. If you are doing business work, your American MBA and good ideas about supply and demand or whatever may not go over well with the local merchant. Don't try to push what you're selling... come in, offer it up quietly and see who takes notice. A lot of PCVs find 1 or 2 teenagers that are interested in working on projects or 1 or 2 teachers in a school that want to learn how to use the internet or whatever... don't try to rock the boat too much/

On an up note, I think that the love of family/friends and more collectivistic attitude that people in the region hold has had a major positive effect on my life.

My e-mail is in my profile, I'd be happy to put you in touch with some Americans/Europeans that have lived there or live there currently and/or Azeris with good English and familiarity with Western culture.
posted by k8t at 4:40 PM on March 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

I hope you don't look like you're Armenian, because the two countries have been in a a long-time dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, a piece of land between the two countries. The two peoples hate each other. They have almost been to war over it several times.
posted by HotPatatta at 4:56 PM on March 12, 2007

Post work so I apologize for the random blurb of questions and reasons you should ask a RPCV this info:

-Political state of the country/any warning against travel to the area (check US websites for this too) - just so you can have a 'heads up' if there are any problems.
-What item(s) could you not find in your (village/town/city) that you missed from the states?
-Could you find english magazines in stores? Or particular american food products?

I know I sound crazy, but I missed not having access to other magazines besides Newsweek after a year or so. Had I known what stuff would be easy to find/not find, I could have provided useful suggestions to friends and family members who sent care packages. Infact, I would have left a small amount of money to have particular items purchased.

If you are going to teach you will probably need to do a secondary project in the summer. I would ask RPCVs what they consider unmet needs or if they could suggest a useful secondary project. If you have time, you may even find resources in the states (info/technical manuals) and other resources.

There is also a PC program to exchange letters from kids in the host country with classrooms in the states with the help of the PCV. I think this would have been a great program, but it took Peace Corps a year to to reply and letters took months to go back and forth. If you want to participate in this program, locate a school interested in this exchange in your area right now.

Have fun!
posted by Wolfster at 6:09 PM on March 12, 2007

HotPatatta - the two people don't hate each other. The governments like keeping NK in their publics' eyes to justify corruption. The people are victims of propaganda. They haven't been to war over it several times. There was 1 "war."

And, generally, especially in rural regions, it is tough to tell Armenians and Azeris a part.
posted by k8t at 10:13 PM on March 12, 2007

Best answer: This blog is written by a PCV in Azerbaijan, who by coincidence happens to be my cousin.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 10:46 PM on March 12, 2007

The "real post report" for AZ may be helpful. It's geared towards embassy staff, but is still good for day-to-day info.
posted by Mozzie at 11:47 PM on March 12, 2007

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