Pics from Istanbul

Here are a few photos from Istanbul.  You can click here to access my flickr account, which will let you look at all of them.  This is just a little preview.  I’ll be uploading more when I get them off of my camera.

Questionable but Awesome

I’m sitting in Starbucks in Istanbul right now.  I got up early and really wanted to just have a seat adjust to my new surroundings with an old friend: Coffee of the Day.

I announced my intentions to visit Starbucks to a friend and she acted like I told her I wanted to see the local Puppy Euthanasia Clinic.  Trust me, I see the point.

I’m in Istanbul, a city that spans two continents.  One that features some of the oldest buildings in the world, yet I got excited when I saw the coffee mermaid above the Starbucks sign.  Am I that lame?  Am I one of “those” Americans?

I say it’s quite the opposite.  I’m so excited to be in a world-class city that has it’s act together well enough to have a Starbucks, that I can’t resist to take advantage of the situation.  I’ve been away from this kind of stuff for two years.  For me, this trip across Eastern Europe is just as much about getting back to the real world (which yes, includes Starbucks) as it is a celebration of my exodus from Azerbaijan.

I’m out

No more countdowns.  I’ve finished the Peace Corps.

I guess I’m just a normal dude now.  Weird.

Regulations

I’m staying at a friend’s apartment in Baku who lives near a construction site.  Staying at his place comes with a nice wake-up at 8 a.m. in the form of a hydraulic jackhammer the size of a cruiser missile.  It’s not so bad during the week, but on the weekends sleeping-in becomes impossible.  Last night, they were still going until nine o’clock.  I understand the need to work quickly, but what about the people who live in the surrounding buildings?

My same friend works for a company in Baku that is trying to get away from renting their office space and build their own building.  They bought a building on the other side of town with the idea that they would tear it down and put in some nice commercial real estate.  When they tried to move forward with the building process, they were told that even though they own the building, they don’t own the land it’s on so they had to purchase the space from the city.  After thinking they were in the clear, they could move forward because the building permit that they needed for that space was already sold to the original building owners who are holding out to make some quick cash.  Even if they were to acquire it, they would have to buy a new one to fit their plans of a six-story office rather than an 18-story apartment building, which would probably take an exorbenant amount of money, if approved at all, because the building wouldn’t fit the plans of the rest of the block.  The project, which they’ve been working on for a couple years, is stalled and unlikely to move forward.

Both situations are classic examples of government regulation.  I think it also shows that there’s no clear-cut choice in whether de-regulation or an overly active government is the way to go.

In a lot of ways, this place is like the Wild West with no central authority implementing a greater plan.  People drive down the wrong side of the street here all the time.  If they miss their turn, rather than driving around the block people will often stop and drive backwards blocks at a time.  It’s so common it’s normal, and sometime it even works.

But a lot of times it doesn’t.  Buses stopping every half a block because there aren’t official bus stops slow everything down.  Traffic downtown doesn’t seem like people making their way through a system, but rather every man for himself.

At the same time though, every point of authority must be acknowledged and often times, paid.  This can make efforts of local citizens and business owners so difficult that good intentions can become quickly squandered.

My time here in Azerbaijan has definitely challenged my political beliefs, showing me another side of the world where things that I’ve always thought to be true aren’t necessarily universal.

I’ve also realized that there are some very fundamental questions about how society is going to be run here that are still unanswered in this relatively young country.  As I move on from my time here, I’ll definitely keep my eye on what happens here.

What an interesting cultural experience!

I could have picked a better time to write on my blog than now (I’m frantically trying to pack up and move out of my house) but I wanted to make sure that I got this down while it’s still fresh in my head.

I went over to a friends house to say goodbye today.  We sat around on a perfect Tuesday afternoon drinking tea and talking about nothing in particular.  These people have been really kind to me over the past two years, so I wanted to make sure to see them before I left Ujar.  As we were sitting a guy whose name I didn’t catch came and joined us.  My friend told me that they had some business to discuss, so I made myself scarce and picked some plums and pomegranate in their garden.

When I came back they were both standing so I assumed that they were finished with whatever they were doing.  I asked the guy, who not only had a strange look to him but also was strapping a harness around his waist, if I could get a picture of him since I was leaving for America soon.  “Why not?” he said.

Since Ramazan has just started, I figured he was a dude walking around doing some good luck prayers for those who are fasting.  I thought he was on his way out, but he was just getting started.

uprightHe set a pole onto his harness and stood it upright and said a prayer.  It looked like someone took the arms off of a scarecrow and stuck it on to this guy’s belt buckle.

I snapped a couple of pictures, with my eyebrows raised the whole time.  I was glad I had asked if it was alright if I took a couple pictures of the whole thing before hand because this might have been the weirdest thing I’ve seen in my two years in Azerbaijan.  But while it was cool that I was taking pictures, I wish I had the camera set to video.

Out of nowhere this guy took of running down the driveway, around the side of the house, and into the bushes.  I looked at my friend and his wife, expecting to see the same shock on their faces as there was on mine, but they just followed the guy around the house where I waited for us, leaning over as if he was exhausted.

He pointed his scarecrow stick into the bushes again and had my friend walk around the trees with a Quran.  They dug up some dirt from a patch of ground and put it in a bucket.  After sprinkling some water on it and having my friend dig through it, a little bundle the size of hotel soap was found wrapped up in plastic and bound in rusty metal wire appeared.

The guy backed away from it and said “Get that away from me!”  We put it over by the door while he tried to raise up his scarecrow stick one more time, only to have it fall back to the ground.  “That’s it.” he said.

headshotWe all sat down at the table and watched him unwrap the contents of the package as he explained what was going on.  There was a black feather, which meant bad luck, so he cut it with scissors.  There was a small piece of egg shell, five bits of a broken up stick, a rusty safety pin with some plastic string tied to it, and a little rock.  As he was was telling them what it all meant, he showed me the rock, which had some words written in Arabic on it.  “See?” he asked, “There are some words written on it”.

“Who wrote it?” I asked.

“How should I know, I just dug it up out of the ground.”

I left it at that and watched them finish up by wrapping all the contents in a piece of paper and instructing them to burn it.

He left after having some water and a cigarette, leaving me completely bewildered because I still had no idea what had just happened.  Obviously, the guy was some sort of fortune teller, but I’m hoping that there’s an Azeri out there who knows what that was all about and can give some details.

2 Months to Freedomland

Wait a minute… Didn’t I write that I had two months left about two months ago???

I did.  But unlike the last time I wrote about having 2 months, which references having 2 months in the Peace Corps, this post marks how long it will be until I’m back home in the U.S.A.  That’s right, I’m going to be doing a wild trip after service.  I don’t want to jinx myself and give a total itinerary here only to have it change later, so I’m not going to go through the whole list of where I’m going though.  Instead, here’s a few details about some important flights:

2 September – Baku, Azerbaijan to Istanbul, Turkey

23 October – Vienna, Austria to New York City

26 October NYC to Portland

I’ll be filling in the blanks to that schedule along the way.

The Coming of the Ship

I was flipping through The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese poet and was struck by how poignantly the story spoke about what I am going through as a departing PCV.  The book is basically about a Prophet who leaves some last bits of wisdom with some people before he leaves them after 12 years on their island.  The story starts out in Chapter One, titled “The Coming of the Ship,” where on the top of a hill, the Prophet sees the ship from his homeland finally coming and is overwhelmed with the idea of returning home.  Even though he’s been dreaming of this day for years, he’s overrun by complicated emotions.

And in the twelfth year, on the seventh day of Ielool, the month of reaping, he climbed the hill without the city walls and looked seaward; and he beheld the ship coming with the mist.

Then the gates of his heart were flung open, and his joy flew far over the sea. And he closed his eyes and prayed in the silences of his soul.

But he descended the hill, a sadness came upon him, and he thought in his heart:

How shall I go in peace and without sorrow? Nay, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city.

Long were the days of pain I have spent within its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness; and who can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret?

Too many fragments of the spirit have I scattered in these streets, and too many are the children of my longing that walk naked among these hills, and I cannot withdraw from them without a burden and an ache.

It is not a garment I cast off this day, but a skin that I tear with my own hands.

Nor is it a thought I leave behind me, but a heart made sweet with hunger and with thirst.

Yet I cannot tarry longer.

The sea that calls all things unto her calls me, and I must embark.

As much as Azerbaijan has driven me crazy over the past two years, it’s totally a part of me now.  So while I may have been down on this place at times, it was all worth it now that I’m at end of my service.  What a strange trip it’s been.