January 2013


Today is a day of mourning in Azerbaijan, and I was glad to spend it with my friend F, who told me a little bit about her country’s history.

Lunch with F at Nargiz in Fountain Square

Lunch with F at Nargiz in Fountain Square

On January 19 and 20, 1990, the USSR army invaded Baku. They didn’t want Azerbaijan to gain independence in spite of the Soviet Union’s collapse. As a result, hundreds of civilians were killed in street skirmishes. The exact number is under dispute.

The deaths are commemorated with red carnations.

These red carnations are taped all over the Baku metro station walls.

These red carnations are taped all over the Baku metro station walls.

After lunch, we visited Martyr’s Lane, or what is better known as Şəhidlər Xiyabanı. Visitors can buy red carnations and place them before the portraits of the martyrs.

Şəhidlər Xiyabanı

Şəhidlər Xiyabanı

It’s a precious way to honor people who died for their country.

Şəhidlər Xiyabanı.  The flame inside this edifice never dies.

Şəhidlər Xiyabanı. The flame inside this edifice never dies.

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60_baku city mall

I absolutely loooove my Sundays.

Last week, after church service, a fellow Pinoy, let’s call him G, invited me to hang out with his friends in Baku City Mall. I’ve never been there and, well, I’m cringing as I type this, I needed sweatpants. (Yes, I’ve caved in. I’ve been freezing in the shorts and leggings that I sleep in.)

Baku City Mall in Bina, reminded me of Greenhills minus 95% of the population. The mall has several wide aisles, where each aisle focuses mainly on either shoes, women’s clothing, men’s clothing and, as you’ll find out, jackets. There were also several shops that sold household items. The quality of things sold are slightly better than Sederek Mall and the prices are also higher. A pair of sweatpants costs ten manat. I’m sure I could’ve gotten the same thing for two manat in the Philippines.

The wide aisles of Baku City Mall

The wide aisles of Baku City Mall

G, in his old jacket, posing.

G, in his old jacket, posing.

Ten minutes after arriving in the mall, G’s friends revealed the true reason for bringing him there. They wanted to buy him a new jacket! (The mastermind of this is, well, let’s call him A.)

Now Baku is a goooorgeous city. There’s the Bulvar that faces the Caspian. There’s Icherisheher which houses buildings that are hundreds of years old. It is an international heritage site. There is park after park after park which are lined with trees imported from Italy. So naturally, people want to look good. Azeris love dressing up!

G, on the other hand, is an environmentalist. He avoids using paper plates and he hopes his next adventure will lead him to Palawan, where he will be mentored by a farmer who propagates organic culture in a self-sustaining environment. In other words, G didn’t care about his three year old olive jacket with a tattered sleeve. He didn’t need a new one so he didn’t buy one even if he could afford it.

But A, a fashionable Azeri, cared. He insisted on buying G a jacket and he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. So we trudged from store to store along the jacket/winter coat aisle as I kept an eye out for sweatpants.

These were my fave men's jackets.

These were my fave men’s jackets.

Now in case you’re not familiar with Pinoy culture, we have this trait called “hiya”. We like giving things and doing things for other people, but when others give or do things for us, we feel awkward and shy about it, so our first instinct is to say “no”. So as we trudged from store to store to store, A would wave jacket after jacket in front of G, and G would say, sometimes in English, sometimes in Azeri, “I really appreciate what you’re doing but I don’t need a jacket. Thank you.”

A did not listen, perhaps because he couldn’t understand G’s tattered sleeve, or perhaps because he had a generous heart, so off we went to another store. A insisted that G try some jackets. G slightly relented and explained to A, sometimes in Azeri, sometimes in English–“We Filipinos, we like doing things for other people. But it’s hard for us to receive.”

“You don’t like this jacket,” A would say sometimes in Azeri, sometimes in English, as he pulled the jacket off G and returned it to the store owner.

“What do you think of this jacket?” A asked me as G pretended to try another black one. After an hour of saying no, G probably figured that A wasn’t going to cave in. He also probably decided that intercultural understanding trumped “hiya”. So I mentioned the store with my favorite jackets and we walked back there.

G fiiiiinally finds a jacket!

G fiiiiinally finds a jacket!

A's triumphant smile!

A’s triumphant smile!

“One of these days,” G promised as we hopped on the bus going to the center of town. “I will cook you guys pancakes.”

Dinner at Nargiz in Fountain Square.  We were all happy.  G got a new jacket. Boy I does not like buying clothes in Bina. Girl A got blue boots and pants.  Boy A found shoes and sexy gloves.  And I bought my warm and comfy sweatpants.  I love Sundays :)

Dinner at Nargiz in Fountain Square. We were all happy. G got a new jacket. Boy I does not like buying clothes in Bina. Girl A got blue boots and pants. Boy A found shoes and sexy gloves. And I bought my warm and comfy sweatpants. I love Sundays 🙂

My box of hope.

My box of hope.

I received my box of hope today. With all my clothes inside, methinks. Fedexed. I haven’t opened it. I’ll probably open it tomorrow. Or the next day. And unpack my clothes. Clothes left in hope.

Grief is good once you decide to walk through it. I’m treating this as a death, because whenever we lose people we love, it is a death. And I’m saying grief is good because I’ve decided to walk through it. Carry my cross. Surrender.

Unwrestle.

One thing I am grateful for, in receiving this box of hope, is that I once again see a glimpse of the person I thought I knew. Good heart. Generous spirit. The man who took responsibility. It got lost somewhere.

But with this box of hope, I see a glimpse of it again, and for that, even if my heart bleeds, I am grateful today.

For this box of hope.

Russian Alphabet flashcard app by www.hamdouchi.com

Russian Alphabet flashcard app by http://www.hamdouchi.com

It’s our back-to-school-week, as well as my back-to-learning-Russian week. You may be wondering why I’m learning Russian instead of Azeri, the official language of Azerbaijan. Isn’t Russian outdated in this part of the world? Isn’t Azeri the language of the Azerbaijanis’ hearts?

My answer is really simple. I have 13 students in my class. (I was blessed with one new student this week so I now have four girls named Leyla in my class! But I will save that story for another blog entry.) The majority of them speak Russian as their first language, and the ones who don’t can understand many Russian words. So guess who was the only one who couldn’t speak a word of Russian in class?

Also, most Azerbaijanis can understand and speak basic Russian. It will also give me access to a bigger part of the world, including–Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, to name a few.

After a month of being in Baku, I made an effort to learn the language. I downloaded a couple of apps and hired a tutor. I was able to learn the alphabet, but after a few weeks, I was COMPLETELY overwhelmed. There are too many words to memorize. The words have soooo many syllables. Gender? Russian has three genders for their nouns? You’ve got to be kidding me! I need to memorize all these words before my tutor comes!

So like most frustrated students, I quit.

Thankfully, I have friends who have encouraged me to get back on the learning wagon. I also admire them because they’re making an effort to learn a new language by putting in quite a few hours per week. For now, I’ve decided to make my own curriculum using my resources and to practice speaking whenever I can.

Here are some of my decisions and methods to help me learn the language.

This an iphone app called 50 Languages.  I'm not sure if I would recommend this or not because I have yet to maximize this app.

This an iphone app called 50 Languages. I’m not sure if I would recommend this or not because I have yet to maximize this app.

1. Invest one to two hours per day learning the words. I do this when I have breaks in school and in the evening.

2. I’m learning the same words that I teach my students. This week we learned about the people in our school community and three-dimensional shapes. Since the words were relevant to me, I was able to remember them more easily.

3. I’m now focusing on words that I can use in everyday life. I downloaded this app called The Spacing Effect. I don’t recommend it because the audio that I paid for doesn’t work (so I have to check the words’ pronunciations through Google Translate) but the app propagates a learning philosophy that matches mine. I’m learning words like, “I want”, “How do you say…” and “chicken”. The app also doesn’t encourage drilling. Instead, I learn the words, and then the next day, the words come up again, and if I get it right, it will probably come up again a few days later so it gets stored in my long-term memory. If I don’t get the word right, it will come up again the next day. This releases me from the self-pressure of memorizing too hard which leads me to frustration.

The Spacing Effect app for Russian.  I don't recommend this because the audio I paid for doesn't work.

The Spacing Effect app for Russian. I don’t recommend this because the audio I paid for doesn’t work.

4. I’ve stopped worrying about grammar. My goal at this point is to express myself in Russian. Grammar inhibits that so I’ll save it when I’m more confident about my speaking skills.

5. I’m applying my knowledge of speaking Russian whenever I can. In school, in restaurants, in stores.

I want to connect, slowly.

the shack a novel by william p. young

A Polish friend of mine has started a book club in Baku, and I am so grateful! It’s forced me to hop back on the reading wagon. I’m also more motivated to read carefully, think about a novel’s themes and context, and underline moving passages.

I’ve also discovered that my most popular blog posts are for my book reviews. It’s funny because after reading mind-blowing book reviews from the New York Times–they are my standard–my reviews come nowhere near theirs. Mine are short, quick, shallow and almost general because I refuse to put spoilers.

Our next reading assignment is on “The Shack” by William P. Young, and I would encourage anyone who is interested in God and/or spirituality to read this book. Yes, it is a Christian book, and it is a little American-touchy-feel-good-sappy, but it is entertaining and thought-provoking. It also forces readers to ask questions.

The novel is centered around Mackenzie Allen Philips, a devout father, who loses his youngest daughter, Missy. She is brutally murdered and found in an abandoned shack. As a result, Mackenzie becomes very depressed and angry with God.

Here’s why I think you should it read it–

1. The book emotionally hooks you in. The first third of the book tells the story of how Missy is kidnapped and brutally murdered. I’m a first grade teacher and I read the book during the Sandy Hook mass murder, which happened to coincide with an internal crisis. I completely related with Mackenzie’s “great sadness” and anger. He was a good father. A hero. He always tried to do the right thing. How could something so horrid, inhuman, undeserving, happen to his daughter and family? I cried for hours as I read through the first few chapters, which means that I imagined myself in Mackenzie’s shoes. I WAS RIGHT THERE! For a reader who has a mild case of ADD, I would say that Young is an excellent writer because he was able to make me fully empathize with his protagonist through the storytelling and dialogue.

2. It asks the age-old question–How can a God that is good allow suffering? Many people, including myself, fear suffering. If I don’t get what I want, am I still loved by God? If I am going through pain, why would a God that is good allow it to happen? The book offers interesting answers that will make you think.

3. It focuses on man’s relationship with God. Many religions around the world focus on ritual and doing good deeds. In the story, we see Mackenzie questioning God. Mackenzie is allowed to be angry with God. Sometimes people want to be the good “believer”. I’m using the word “believer” because I think this book can be read by anyone from any religion. Sometimes we are afraid of questioning God and shaking our fists at Him because, at least in my case, I want to be the “good Christian”. But when God invites us into relationship with Him and we say yes, sometimes, like any human relationship, we get upset and frustrated. The awesome thing with God is He is big enough to take our anger and this is depicted in the book.

4. William P. Young depicts God in an out-of-the-box way. Most of us picture our Heavenly Father as a man who takes care of us. The way Young describes God is in some ways almost laughable. (I won’t spoil it for you!) I also experienced an inner tension because of a gender stereotype that I grew up with.

5. The book ends with hope. Mackenzie’s circumstance didn’t change but his heart did. Young quotes Oswald Chambers at the beginning of chapter 18–Faith never knows where it is being led, but it knows and loves the One who is leading.

49_above the smog

Manila, the city I grew up in, has a strong American influence. For many of us, English is our mother tongue. I learned how to read through watching Sesame Street. We love McDonald’s and KFC. And in the posh parts of the city we have a Starbucks coffeehouse after every three blocks. We even have Starbucks drive-thrus! Sometimes I think we love Starbucks more than Americans do.

In Baku, we have no Starbucks. But we do have the Baku Roasting Company.

49_door

A couple of weeks ago, some of my American friends (surprise surprise!) took me to the BRC and I absolutely loved it!

This morning, I took the train to the Elmler metro station. Elmler reminded me of Brooklyn with its wide streets, parks, residential buildings which look like brownstones, and stores. It also has a more laid back feel compared to the Icherisheher area.

Fountain near the Elmler Metro Station

Fountain near the Elmler Metro Station

BRC’s interior looks like Starbucks, and I mean that as a compliment.

They've got dark wooden furniture and leather couches.  They have these yellow lights that make the coffeehouse feel cozy.  They've also given the place an Azerbaijani touch through patterned tapestries and carpets.  I thought that was a good idea.

They’ve got dark wooden furniture and leather couches. They have these yellow lights that make the coffeehouse feel cozy. They’ve also given the place an Azerbaijani touch through patterned tapestries and carpets. I thought that was a good idea.

51_interior

The barristas are pretty friendly and can understand basic English. BRC has a lunch special which includes a choice of any two among a variety of soups, salads and sandwiches. It’s 7 manat for a pretty big meal. I’ve also only ordered the cafe latte and it tastes the same as Starbucks’ :).

I love their chicken barbeque salad.  It's light and delicious.

I love their chicken barbeque salad. It’s light and delicious.

Today I also ordered their Thai soup.  I'm no Thai food expert but I am familiar with some of the spices,  namely lemongrass.  I think the base was made from fresh tomatoes.  It had beef, peas and corn.  It was good, but I wouldn't call it Thai soup.

Today I also ordered their Thai soup. I’m no Thai food expert but I am familiar with some of the spices, namely lemongrass. I think the base was made from fresh tomatoes. It had beef, peas and corn. It was good, but I wouldn’t call it Thai soup.

The best part of my meal!  Cheescake!  It was worth the 4 manat AND calories!  It was creamy, a good mix of sweet and slightly sour and tangy.  The cheesecake is enough reason for anyone to go to BRC.

The best part of my meal! Cheescake! It was worth the 4 manat AND calories! It was creamy, a good mix of sweet and slightly sour and tangy. The cheesecake is enough reason for anyone to go to BRC.

But the best part of my visit was bumping into Jim from church.

52_jim

Jim is originally from California but has taught primary school in Kazakhstan and other former USSR countries for 20 years. He’s married to a lady from Kazakhstan and has two children–Masha and Vanya. He’s been living in Baku for six years.

Jim is also a Christian writer so it was good to hear about his writing ideas and the conceptual frameworks he was developing his ideas around. Besides being blessed with good conversation over coffee and cheesecake, he ended up emailing me a dictionary of Russian and English words that are the same. This will definitely help me learn Russian more easily.

BRC also has a library where people can share books. Jim ended up gifting me with his.

50_pursuit of God

The winter weather we’ve had since the New Year has been absolutely breathtaking. We have sunny blue skies! What more can a girl ask for? I know I have to clean and do laundry but I’ll save that for the evening. I want to take in this gorgeous weather before school starts.

Icherisheher, the old walled city of Baku, is close to my heart. The first time I was here (which was last March) my hotel was inside this walled city. I promptly fell in love with this hidden jewel by the Caspian. I never suspected that I would end up working here. God is good.

41_menu

There’s a restaurant inside Icherisheher called Karvansara. Hundred of years ago, travelers from Azerbaijan’s neighboring countries would come to these Karvansaras to rest and park their horses and camels.

This Karvansara has several room that used to house weary travelers that visited Baku.  The rooms are still intact.  But they are now used s dining rooms.

This Karvansara has several room that used to house weary travelers that visited Baku. The rooms are still intact. But they are now dining rooms.

This is a well where the camels and horses used to drink from.  Locals and tourists now drop coins into it as they make a wish.

This is a well where the camels and horses used to drink from. Locals and tourists now drop coins into it as they make a wish.

This is one of the many dining rooms complete with a chandelier, fireplace and regal table setting.

This is one of the many dining rooms complete with a chandelier, fireplace and regal table setting.

My view from inside the dining room.  I love arched doorways which face more arched doorways.

My view from inside the dining room. I love doorways which face more arched doorways.

The waiters were friendly but the service was a bit slow. He recommended the mangal salad and grilled chicken. Both did not disappoint.

A mangal salad consists of grilled eggplant and tomato that is mashed up.  This mangal also had fresh and crunchy capsicum.  I had it on top of bread.  It was soooo delicious!  It's now one of my favorite Azeri dishes.

A mangal salad consists of grilled eggplant and tomato that is mashed up. This mangal also had fresh and crunchy capsicum. I had it on top of bread. It was soooo delicious! It’s now one of my favorite Azeri dishes.

The grilled chicken arrived with lemon-sprayed onions and a purple spice.  From 1 to 10 it was a 5.

The grilled chicken arrived with lemon-sprayed onions and a purple spice. From a 1 to 10 it was a 5.

My bill was 14 manat. (Gasp.) This included bread and a huge bottle of sparkling water. They also added service task, which is very unusual for Baku.

But given the experience of eating in a building which is hundreds of years old, and where secret stories are stored in its walls, where the atmosphere is semi-regal and the food, healthy and delicious, I would say that the Karvansara is well worth a visit.

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