Thursday, October 27, 2011

When Things Get Normal...

So I've been creeping on other PCV's blogs and realized that I've fallen down on my photag duties. I guess when you settle in and things become "normal" you forget that this normal is is my memory. So, I'm going to work on keeping an eye out for things that won't be "normal" forever. Just to catch you up...things are good here. We're crazy busy - not always a problem, so I'm diggin' it while it lasts.Here are the bullet points:- We're both teaching at a local university. The Agriculture University is piloting a program with a small group of students in which all of the courses are taught in English. D's course is covering transnational corporations...or something like that...mine has a public speaking / technical writing focus. Yes - public jokes, doubters - I did it every day for five years in a high school classroom - a relatively intimidating arena, so I think I can manage. It's a lot of fun, but we spend most of our free time getting our lessons ready since there's no set curriculum.
- D's "My Mic" event has become something truly incredible...something sustainable - a Peace Corps buzz word, and a pretty elusive goal for volunteers. Last month it had traditional Azeri music & dancing, break dancers, beat boxers, a guitar club, a rock band, and poetry reading. It's amazing to realize that you can actually see confidence grow in these young people...they step up to the mic one person and leave another. It sounds dramatic, but it's true. This event gives them a chance to shine, and that's exactly what they do.
- The Ganja AzETA (Azerbaijan English Teachers' Association) branch - my primary host organization - is showing great promise this year, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed. We're starting an "AzETA Serves" chapter that is doing a clothing drive for a local orphanage this fall and will start another drive in the spring. We're also planning a literacy project with little ones that will focus on storytelling and creative writing.
- And all the hour here, hour there gaps in our days are filled with conversation clubs, essay revisions, and lesson planning.

We're getting so excited for our trip home in December. I cannot wait. Only seven weeks to go...Of course, I've been keeping a list of all the things I miss (which means food because I am an Atwood / Lanfear). Dustin thinks this is totally unproductive, but there are far worse things I could do, right?...So, here are the big ones...
- MEXICAN FOOD...all of it, including Taco Bell enchiritos (which some people don't consider Mexican food, but I say stop being so snotty and eat it already...) - BBQ - TEXAS BBQ...that means beef brisket, my friends - MARGARITAS...which some people would lump into the Mexican food category, but I think it deserves a category all its own - WAFFLE HOUSE...I know my Georgia crew is hearing this one...smothered, covered, and peppered, kids - AUNTIE ANNE'S PRETZEL DOGS & PEOPLE know you do it - MELLOW MUSHROOM...bring it on...LUBY'S LUANNE WITH FRIED FISH...because there's nothing like eating moderately priced cafeteria food with elderly people. Oh yeah...
We love you guys. Thanks for keeping up with us. Hopefully we'll catch up with some of you in TX! Here are some pictures to show you what we've been up to lately...

AzETA teachers playing a game at "Start Strong" - a few weeks of workshops just before school started.

My AzETA Teachers at the End of Start Strong

Working on 4Mat Lesson Planning and SOAS - Select, Omit, Adapt, Supplement

A Few Weeks Ago We Decided It Was Time To Get Busy Cleaning Our Rugs / Sleeping Bags Since Winter Was Coming (It's Here Now, By The Way) So I Documented Our Fall Cleaning...I Got A Little Dramatic Near The End...And Apparently All My Hair Is Falling Out - Gross...

We got to go to the World Boxing Championship and Olympic Qualifying Rounds in Baku a Few Weeks Ago...This is American, Jesse Hart pounding someone from Qatar...

The Arena Was Pretty Empty - So All The Americans Waving Flags and Chanting "USA" Were A Little Obvious

We've Now Been To Two Azeri Weddings. This is Ilaha - She Was a Peace Corps Trainer and Works At Dustin's Office. This Day Also Happens To Be Our One Year Anniversary In Azerbaijan. Azeri Weddings Are Pretty Glamorous - Hence The Golden, Sparkle Walls...

Remember Kama, Our Host Sister in Sumgayit? We Went Back A Few Weeks Ago For Her Oldest Brother's Wedding. So Much Fun...I Think We've Got The Azeri Dancing Down To A Science...

Here are Vusal, his wife, Sadeat, and Baby Muslim At The Wedding...He Seems To Be Eyeing The Green Stuff...

Muslim Look A Little Irked, Maybe It's The Hat...Here He Is With Dustin and His Uncle (Sadeat's Brother). He's a Wonderful Man Whose Family Is Always So Kind and Welcoming...Do You Remember The Post Where The Kids Are Teaching Dustin Azeri? Those Are His Kiddos.

The Groom Getting Ready To Pick Up His Bride...What You Don't See Are All of His Relatives Dancing In the Parking Lot In Front of Him...

The Bride and Groom Make Their First Appearance Together. We Were All Just Upstairs Where There is More Dancing, The Red Ribbon Ritual - The Brother of of the Bride / Groom Ties a Red Ribbon Around The Bride's Waist to Symbolize Purity, An Exchange of Gifts Including a Mirror and a Lamp - More Symbolism But I'm Not Sure What Specifically...Here the Bride's Looking Up As Her Friends Throw Flower Petals From the Apartment Above.

My Buddy, Xayal - A Peace Corps Staffer...and the Coolest Tie Ever...

The New Peace Corps Trainees Are Now In Country and Went On The Site Visits Last Week. Ganja Got Quite a Few and the PCVs Got Together To Show Them A Good Time...This Is In Our Backyard...My Favorite Part of This Picture Is the Collection of Ziplocs Drying On The Line In the Background...Nice...

Monday, September 19, 2011

Chisels and Gouges

His hands are constantly moving. Controlled like a good mechanic or someone who has spent a lifetime serving in the military. He talks as he works, methodically trimming and preparing the meat, then sliding it onto stainless steel skewers. At intervals, as if determined in some prehistoric era, he glances back towards the fire to examine its heat. His cigarette joins in the dance and adds allure to the fluid and precise movements of the speaker. The smoke from the meat fire combines with the Winston and frames the scene. His hair is dark, dappled with grey in all the right places, he wears a manicured mustache and his skin is tan like most men in the region. Short but solidly built. Round shoulders and rough hands, hardened by 30 years of work with wooden handled tools. But unlike most men I’ve met, he carries himself like a poet, seeing radiance when the rest of us see routine. Shrouded with mystery and magic and protected from the harsh shapes and bold outlines that often define the existence of lesser men.

His name is Saladin. He has agreed to share his story with us and a meal with me. The story began centuries ago in the Middle East, when a charismatic leader won a momentous battle at Hattin that marked a turning point in a historic struggle. On a Roman road near Tiberias, in present day Israel, Saladin the first sultan of Egypt and Syria defeated the Crusaders, delivering a crippling blow that paved the way for the re-capture of Palestine in 1187 by the Ayyubid dynasty.  Saladin founded this Muslim empire centered in Egypt and of Kurdish origin. His chivalry and vision distinguished him as both a leader and adversary, a unique man then and now. Despite being the nemesis of the Crusaders, King Richard the Lionheart spoke of him with respect and even today he is a celebrated example of the principles of chivalry in both eastern and western cultures alike, a legacy of balance in an atmosphere pitching with conflict and contradictions.  Our Saladin is also a king, both in name and character. Situated in a new crucible of conflict, but also marking a turning point and acting as a catalyst for change still to come.

Commanding chisels and gouges, instead of armies, our Saladin spends his days carving doors, staircases, and moldings, for Azerbaijan’s few, but powerful elite. When he is without work, which often occurs in a changing and developing country, he shakes off the title of tradesman and turns to his relief carvings for outlet and expression.  Relief carving is a limitless form of artistic expression as old as antiquity. It is a sculptural form in which figures and scenes are carved in a flat panel of wood. The figures project only slightly from the background rather than standing freely. The process is unique because it involves removing wood from a flat panel in such a way that the object appears to rise out of the wood. My host adds that other forms of sculpture are based on adding material, clay for example, but when tasked with removing material the difficulty increases. Our Saladin sometimes spends long hours bent over a project, ripping away at layers of life built over hundreds of years, while at the same time creating a new one that will outlast the previous. Persian walnut is his material of choice, a tree native to the Caucasus region, and known for its beautiful tone, tight grain, and unequaled density, which is evidenced by the layers of callus on the bottom of our hero’s hands.

Back at the dinner table he serves us barbequed mutton. He tells me about how he got his start as an artist 20 years ago and that he feels he has never finished a piece because like the world around him it too is alive, and changes with him. He tells a story, pausing to stare with reverie at the bruise stained sky, about hanging a carving on the wall, then 10 years later taking it back down to alter a detail or add a dimension. A self-taught carpenter and artist, his art hangs on it’s own merit in the local art gallery in Ganja, and he tells a proud story of one of his pieces being displayed in a Russian Government building somewhere in St. Petersburg, a city often described as the most western of Russian cities and known for having the largest art museum in the world. It is fitting that our Saladin’s work finds residence here in Russia’s majestic former capital. With deep breaths and passionate tones he describes his pictures which are overflowing with waterfalls, shady trees, and soaring mountains. At first glance they look like utopian dreams reflecting nature on a good day. But upon inspection you see that the trees take on human qualities with the curve of gender and evolve into clouds with eyes and tears that drip into the life below. Other reliefs echo symbolic references to the number seven. The Koran’s seven heavens, creation’s seven days, and the rainbow’s seven colors. From East to West, Nile to Amazon, Abraham to OZ, his pictures illustrate for the viewer age old wonders and herculean thoughts.

After dinner he demonstrates his process by taking a blank walnut panel and quickly sketching out a scene in pencil. He escapes into his work as I wonder about the simplicity of his success and the elegance of his hand. He continues talking about the direction the picture could go, as well as commenting on the direction of art and creativity in Azerbaijan. He agrees that there is a need for more imagination in this culture struggling with its past and path. Like shaping a piece of art, he carefully encourages his children to be artists in a political and economic environment unfriendly to imaginative means. Back at the table with tea, we travel back in time with him as he lays out pictures of past projects and a life time of work. But according to our leader his work is not work at all, but rather a release. When I ask what he thinks about while he labors, he describes a flight to a new world surrounded by the scene he wants to create. Fashioning his future with each thrust of the hand and sealing his heroic fate. I’ve traveled enough to know how rare it is in both this culture and abroad to enjoy your occupation. Most men can’t see beyond the nearest supervisor or the era’s social expectation. But like a King, our Saladin rules his work and inspires, building his empire out of imagination and love of details and the ability to escape into a fantastic world swirling with regal white birds silhouetted against a purple sky.

Our Saladin’s story may not appear in the history books, but he has left his mark on me.

Saladin has artwork for sale and can be contacted at the following email address:

Dustin Windham
Peace Corps Volunteer
Ganja, Azerbaijan

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Getting Ready for Eurovison 2012

Azerbaijan won the Eurovision Song Contest ( last year so they get to host it in 2012. A couple of our friends put together this video to prepare the music lovers that will flock to the capital....

Baku State of Mind

Monday, September 5, 2011

Life or death and everything else

Western popular culture seems to think that mortality is a choice. Take this pill, drink this juice, eat that food, and your body will forget it’s made for seasons, both beautiful and bland. But what do Azerbaijanis think is required to live a healthy and fulfilled life? This is the question I presented to a group of students at the Agriculture University in Ganja, Azerbaijan. In an unused laboratory once a place to measure quality, and distill ideas, now dormant, dry and dust covered, we mused on one of humanities oldest questions. From behind empty beakers and broken pipettes I saw hands go up. “Vugar, yes what is your opinion”….The students are in the their 2nd year at the Azerbaijan State Agrarian University, a school with an enrollment of around 3,000 students, and a history dating back to 1929, making it the first and only agriculture university in the country. Vugar responds with, “never drink cold water (in fact the less water you drink the better), mix jam with hot tea to fight a cold, use cactus to combat computer rays, and don’t sit on uncovered concrete,” typical answers for this formal and skeptical culture. The goal for the day was to discuss the organic agriculture movement both in Azerbaijan and abroad. Worldwide Industrial growth, a hungry and growing population, and a jump in scientific capabilities has led to questionable practices and a growing concern for the impacts modernity has on our health and environment. In the US the concept of organic is in vogue, and although I have not heard of a cactus cure for radiation, just about every other remedy exists - coconut water to wash away the toxins, a cut from a cow that’s been treated kindly, or a peanut butter and potato diet. Azerbaijan’s organic movement seems to have started out of necessity, but now has the opportunity to transition to a market driven by demand. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, farmers were left with little choice, no nearby industry, poor infrastructure, limited access to fertilizers and pesticides, but as the country moves towards development farmers are being given other alternatives. In the US, organic begins with a set of standards that limit: pesticides, hormones, radiation, antibiotics, genetically modified inputs, and is monitored through strict documentation. This process usually leads to higher quality, but higher prices and lower quantities as well. Here in Azerbaijan the question is whether or not people will choose organic when given the option. As Vugar and the rest of the class continue to argue over what is the best way to fight against mortality, I thought about the food we eat and the benefits of a choice. I believe freedom starts with a choice. But what about the source of that choice? Is it internal, something you have the power to control, or external, only available when offered by the standing government or nearest bully. I believe the former, and because of that I see the steps towards organic as monumental. Not due to the added nutrition value, or the few extra years it might add to your life, but that it will provide the people of Azerbaijan with a new choice. We may not have a choice in life or death but in everything else the freedom lies in the option not the outcome. Vugar, the boys, and the one girl in the class, never conceded agreement with my argument, but I saw Vugar’s eyes shift to the floor when towards the end of the discussion one student stood up and mockingly ask “What good is another head of cabbage on the shelf if it costs twice as much?”….

Dustin Windham
Peace Corps Volunteer
Ganja, Azerbaijan

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I Take You With Me...

Everywhere I Go...

"They left me
with your shadow,
saying things like
Life is not fair

& I believed them
for a long time.

But today,
I remembered
the way you laughed
& the heat
of your hand
in mine

& I knew that
life is more fair
than we can
ever imagine
we are there to live it"

Brian Andreas - StoryPeople

Dancing, Anyone?

A little glimpse into the dance culture of Azerbaijan...
Check out the videos by clicking on the links below...

Dustin's GABA Office Party

Ganja My Microphone - July 2011

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Our House...

Here's our house...check it out.

Summertime in the AZ

Summertime in Azerbaijan is a lot like Texas - hot. We made our two best purchases of our PCV lives the last few months, a fan and a kiddie pool, which we spend most of our waking moments in or around.
We've been traveling around the regions for the last few weeks, spending some time with PCVs around the country. Here are a few pictures...
July 4th - Hot Dogs, Watermelon, and 3 Stitches in an Azeri Hospital after a Little Horse Play...Here's the progression. Looking good D.Windham...

The "Qarpiz" Car

A Restaurant That Serves "Lobster"...Also Known As Crawdads...Mine is Chasing a Boat...

The Beach -- The Ming Reservoir -- About 1.5 Hours Away by Bus

The Tendir Ovens

Our Host Home @ a Village in Gusar Region - On a CBT (Community Based Tourism) Trip

The Kitchen @ the CBT Host Home

On the Walk Through a Village in Gusar Region

Boy With Bird...Which Sounds Sweet Until You Realize He's Tied To a String...

The Village School

I got a little car-sick on one of our trips...shocking, I know. This little guy came and guarded me while I recovered.
 I named him Toby Ziegler.

The Riverbed in Lahic (Lahij)

Tobacco Leaves Drying

The River, Balakan

Monday, June 20, 2011

From the Field

 My host organization in the community is Ganja Agribusiness Association (GABA), one of the country’s leading Agriculture NGOs. GABA is committed to sustainable development of the country’s agriculture sector, which employs over 30% of the working population. GABA's activities include work in the following fields:
-Agriculture Extension
-Greenhouse Agriculture
-Organic Agriculture
-Agriculture Policy Reform
-Market Research
-Environmentally Sustainable Land Use
Last month we went into the field to evaluate some of our ongoing projects…

                                                          Greenhouse agriculture project
                                                                 A family affair

                                                        Farmer group meeting under the trees

                                                       The beginnings of a new barn
                                                         Collecting a soil sample

Friday, June 17, 2011

"Build It Bigger" - Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan made an appearance on The Discovery Channel's "Build it Bigger" a few weeks ago. Check out this link for a clip of the footage. It is broken up into three segments on You Tube, but once you view the first, it will give you the option to watch the rest. Enjoy...

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Guess It's Been A While...

...but rest assured - we're here! It's 11 PM, and I'm pretty I'll give you the bullet point version of what we've been up to and then bombard you with pictures. (which, by the way, will only open in Internet's a technological mystery)

- D's started an Open Mic Night in Ganja that's been incredibly successful...
- We're addicted to The West Wing and have no idea what we'll do with ourselves once we've finished the last productive, I guess...ugh.
- We've moved into our own little home - YEAH!!
- We're teaching a U.S. Government class and are totally embarrassed by how little we know about our own country...
- We're gearing up for some summer trips around the country...birding is on the list (shocking, I'm sure, for those of you that know Dustin Windham)
- We met some Aggies in Baku! Gig 'em.

We've gotten so much good news from home lately -- babies born, first steps taken, cancer defeated, milestones reached. Know that we celebrate with you...on the other side of the world, we celebrate with you. We love you all SO much! Thank you for your continued concern and support. We couldn't go on without you.

See...still here! We're at Dustin's work party at "Magara" ... the cave. It's one of two restaurants in town where women are officially "olar" -- allowed. Yeah, Magara!! :)

The Ganja Peace Corps Crew and the New U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Matthew Bryza. He toured the country with the Peace Corps Country Director to celebrate P.C.'s 50th Anniversary - Happy Birthday, Peace Corps!

Azeri Road Block - Water Buffalo

What will soon be the downfall of my waistline -- tendir bread. There's a shop around the corner from our house. Tendir bread is cooked, well - vertically. Sounds crazy...I know. I'll take some pictures at the bakery one day. The ovens are these concrete, open-ended domes about 3 feet tall. They've got a fire in the center, and the dough is slapped (literally) onto the side of the oven. It is, with the exception of Granny's, the best bread on the face of the planet. ISTI COREK....mmmmm... (hot bread).

Dustin and Ilqar (pronounced Ilgar). We're in the backyard of the home he shares with this wife, children, mother and father. The garden is incredible -- full of potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, strawberries, string beans, plus every fruit tree you can imagine. I love that about this country - everyone's got a garden. Ilqar's learning English and D's learning Azeri (much better than me, by the way) our dinner conversation is a crazy mix of both. Ilqar kept saying "organic, organic" every time a new plate of food came to the table. haha...

Kelly and Ilqar's Niece. Ilqar is one of Dustin's friends form work - he's such a wonderful man. When his family invites us over, they treat us like we're one of the gang.

Ilqar's sons and niece - (her name means Poppy - love it). The boys look like they've been in a bit of a marker war -- it's actually chicken pox medicine. HA...Every time I'd walk into the room, they'd start screaming and run away - does wonderful things for your self confidence, let me tell you. The giant yellow-haired woman... (AKA - Sari Sach "Yellow Hair")
Dustin and Saedat's Little One, Muslim. Saedat is our host sister-in-law from training in Sumgayit. We went back for an education fair in Baku this weekend and took a trip to Sumgayit to see the new baby. It was a strange feeling going back to that town, back to that apartment, but it was so nice to see them.

Aunt (Bibi) Kelly and Baby Muslim

A Packed House @ Dustin's Open Mic Night! 120 in Attendance - Way to Go, D! I'm sure he'll want to fill you in on all the details, so I'll leave it at that for now.

The Cure-All For a Crappy Day - Homemade French Fries and Beer

Rebecca and I on "Grown Up Night" ... although I'm not quite living up to the night's goal here. Rebecca's boyfriend, Mark, is here on a Fulbright Scholarship. Rebecca's been such a great friend these last few months. She'll be leaving in a week...along with my sanity! Ladies, never underestimate the need for and the power of a good friend!! To all my ladies at home, I miss you so!

Dustin & Ruzi at the Ganja International School Carnival - Ruzi was officiating the Ping Pong tournament.

A Little Bit of Hitchcock

The Lone Poppy - This is a walk along a road by the river. It opens up into a big clearing with an awesome view of the mountains...when they're not covered in clouds...

The New House! Two Bedrooms, A Living Room / Kitchen, and an INDOOR BATHROOM!! Lovin' It! - Dustin at the Kitchen Table - We've Got a 70's Thing Going On...We're planning to paint quotes on our walls in the next few weeks - put a little D&K into this place.

The Ganja Softball Team - YEAH!