Meeting the Host Family in Devechi

Davachi Travel Blog

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This is the toothpaste they gave me, haha

Finally the day arrived in which I was going to visit my permanent destination here in the Peace Corps.  As I stated earlier, I will be spending the next two years in Devechi, Azerbaijan.  In those two years I have no doubt that I will become very familiar with the area and the people in that city.  As a first time visitor though, I did not have the necessary skills to navigate the city and find where my permanent host family lives.  To make things worse, not a single person came to pick me up.

I stood there, right next to a market store, for about a half an hour trying to get the host family to send someone to take me to their house.  I don’t quite know what was going on, but the girl kept on saying that the house was right next to the school.  As I stated before, I’m new to the city and for obvious reasons (at least they should have been obvious), I don’t know where the school is.

Finally, one of the 7 taxi drivers who were sitting there, staring at me, asked to see my phone and started talking with the family.  He understood them perfectly and told me (in Azeri of course), “ahh, they are right next to the school.”

Now, the taxi driver had the upper hand in this situation.  He said it would only cost 2 manat for him to take me to there.

“No, that is expensive,” I replied.

“No it isn’t,” he said.

By this point I was already frustrated.  “2 manat is expensive, but for 1 manat I’ll go.”

He consented, but for some reason I went with another taxi driver (who had no idea where the school was and had to call and ask the family for directions).

Now, you might say to yourself that 2 manat equals about $2.40.  Realize that I only brought 20 or so manat for the entire trip, and the Peace Corps was only reimbursing 16 manat for the entire trip.  It cost me 12 manat to get here to begin with.  Now, at this point I was already figuring that the trip was going to put me into the hole, and that perhaps I might not even have enough money to get home.  Now you know why I was all of a sudden being a stickler about 1 dollar.

So, the taxi driver drove me about two blocks south and a block or so east to where the school and my permanent home was going to be.  All of this trouble was over what could have been a 5-10 minute walk from the bazaar to the home.

Obviously I was walking into this whole situation already somewhat frustrated.  No matter how frustrating it was, I had to put on a good face and make a good impression.

The school director (the temporary one, I’ll get into it later), and my host father were waiting right next to the school for me.  I stepped out, warmly greeted them and got underway with introductions, etc.  Luggage was taken and I was escorted into the house.

I got the formal tour of the house and met the host family.  Firuz (the host father), and Sanam (the mother) are a bit older.  Firuz is a doctor who works in a laboratory that checks for contamination in the city’s food and water.  Sanam is a biology teacher in the school right next to us.  The two kids are older as well (both in their 20’s), Kameron the boy being younger than Arzu, the girl.  Neither of them have a job.  I’m not sure what Kameron does all day, but his main job he said was preparing for the university.  Arzu has already gotten her law degree, but she is in the house most of the day cooking and cleaning.

Olxan is another male, in his 20’s, who is boarding in their home.  He works in a bank, or something, I didn’t quite understand, and isn’t from the region.  We shared a room for my stay here and he is a very nice kid.

The family itself is very hard to talk to.  Sanam, Kameron and Arzu don’t understand a word I say.  I also don’t understand them.  However, Firuz and I can sit and have a conversation with no trouble.  Also, the people who visited us had no trouble understanding me, nor do I they.  It is so funny (and annoying) how they try and compensate for me not understanding them.  The conversation will inevitably go like this:

“Kori! Sabah, bir ijwfoj2fj2fjfjsvasnfjksdfkwifoj.”

Now, sabah means tomorrow, and bir means one.  Those are the words I understand.

“I’m sorry, could you speak a little clearer, I didn’t understand.”

“Kori! Tomorrow, one oj29fj2f98j2fjp8f28jfjjj.”

They think that by translating two words in their extremely complex sentences that I will somehow understand them.  That got frustrating after about 10 seconds.

Sometimes they would ask me a question like “Do you have a mother back in America?” Of course I would answer, simply, yes, I do.  Then they would all (meaning Sanam, Kameron and Arzu) say to each other that I really didn’t understand what they asked me.  Then I would say “actually, I understood just fine, yes, I have a mother.” Even then, they wouldn’t believe that I understood them.

Like good hosts, they asked if I was hungry.  I actually was, so I said yes.  Ten minutes later, a plate of kalam dolma appeared (one of my favorite dolma, mmmm).  I got to work eating the dolma, but like most recently cooked food, it was hot.  I started blowing on the food and this is the conversation that went on:

“You dislike the food?” Arzu asked.

“No, it is just a little hot,” I responded.

“You dislike the food because it is hot,” she stated.

My response was a jumble of something because I didn’t have the language to explain myself.  She responded by telling Kameron that I didn’t understand the question.

Later on we were talking, the best we could, about how long I have been here and how long I was going to be staying.  I started talking a little bit about my training host family and I mentioned that Tamam is a good cook.  Sanam looked a little hurt, as if I was saying that they were bad cooks or something.  Immediately these questions followed:

“Do you like Devechi food or Ceyranbatan food?”

“I like Devechi and Ceyranbatan.”

“Which city is better, Devechi or Ceyranbatan?”

“I like Devechi and Ceyranbatan.”

“He didn’t understand,” they said to each other.

The brother came closer to me and said “Is Devechi more beautiful or Ceyranbatan?”

At this point, I was done answering this question.  “I will not answer this question,” I responded.

“Why”

“I don’t want to”

For two days I got multiple versions of those same questions, to which I would always reply that I did not want to answer. 

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The house is absolutely beautiful.  It is a lot bigger than the house I have been staying in and there are windows lining the entire front side.  They have 3 cats, a dog (who hates me right now, but he’ll love me later) and a huge garden in the back (complete with pomegranate trees in fact).  Inside, there is a central living room where the mom, dad, brother and sister sleep (because it is much warmer that way) and three rooms attached to that.  On the side of the house, in a small hallway, is a set of stairs going to the upstairs.  Now, the upstairs is pretty much going to be my own place.  They have another person boarding there (who works in a bank I think).  His name is Olxan and I get along with him well at this point.

The kitchen is outside of the house, as is the shower and the toilet.  The shower is huge, and has hot water pretty much all of the time.  The toilet itself is a squat toilet (basically a hole in the ground), but it is a very nice room.

One thing that I especially appreciate about this house is that it is so clean.  When Sanam showed me around, that was something she was particularly proud of.  Really, the house is very nice.

After meeting the host family and having some food with them, I was a little frustrated and feeling like I needed a break from it all, so I said that I would like to take a nap.  This is always a good way to get some space when you need it in a situation like this.  Anyways, when I got to my room I found out that actually I was tired, and I pretty much passed out.

I woke up some time a couple hours later and thought it would be a good idea to go back downstairs and talk a little bit.  There was a teacher there (who taught biology), waiting for me.  We talked for about 5 minutes and then suddenly she said “ok, let’s go to school.”

Now, most Peace Corps volunteers went on this trip with their coordinators.  Aida, my official coordinator from the school and the person I will probably be working with the most for the next two years, had to go to Baku on the day I was going to Devechi.  This is why I went alone and why I needed someone to show me where the house and school were.  When I met her in Sumqayit, she asked me to wait to go to school until she got there because she wanted to be the one to show me around.

Also, to make all this the most interesting dynamic possible, the school director had died two days before I came to Devechi.  Really, no matter what, without Aida, I was walking into this completely blind.

In any case, my intention was to honor Aida’s request, and when I asked the biology teacher if my coordinator was going to be there, she answered yes.  I was a bit dizzy, and I hadn’t really prepared what I wanted to say to people (it is something you have to think through a little bit, I feel), but because Aida was going to be there after all, I left.

In the school, I met some teachers and then sat with the assistant director (whose name is Chasm).  After a couple of minutes of small talking with him, he said that we were going.  Completely clueless, and still a little dizzy, I followed him down a poorly lit green hallway to the other side of the school finally getting to their auditorium.  Inside there were at least 200 teachers sitting around and talking in the fading light of the evening.  The sun had gone down about 30 minutes before and in the window the side of a large hill could be seen casting a shadow over the entire area.

I was surprised at the amount of male teachers in this group, as well as with the amount of teachers that there were in this school.  I met a couple of them and told them in the best Azeri I knew how that I was an English teacher from America.  Then the session began.

We stood for a minute to give respect to the director that just passed away. At least I think that is what we were doing.  That was the last thing I really understood.  Soon Chasm was yelling at all of the teachers, saying something to the effect that they were bad and this wasn’t a real school yet.  I know the subject had been changed from that when everybody was yelling back at him, and at each other.  Then it became a very friendly conversation.  That was an odd teachers meeting.

I was asked to come up and to present myself.  Thankfully this was during the friendly part of the session.  Unfortunately, I was still dizzy.  I got up to the front of the room and stood next to one of the English teachers and started talking a little bit about myself.  My name is Corey Stevens, I’m an English teacher, I’m excited to be here, etc.  I didn’t plan on speaking that evening and just came across as an overwhelmed foreigner who didn’t know what to say rather than the professional that I feel like I am.  So much for first impressions.

The next day Aida came in and showed me around the school.  I met with the other English teachers more formally and even sat in on a few classes.  The school itself is very impressive.  It has been renovated from a broken down soviet style school that had been abandoned for years to a modern(ish) beautifully put together building.  The English teachers are equally as impressive.  The ones that I have met so far are very excited to work with me, to learn new ways of teaching and to improve their English, but they are even more excited to teach using more interactive methods.  They have even been trying to implement group work and pair talking activities in their classrooms since before I showed up.  Compared to every other school I have seen so far in this country, these teachers are light years ahead.

At this point though, they haven’t been successful.  They ask students to do difficult conversations completely on their own with no scaffolding (a term teachers use to indicate the concept of preparing a student to do more difficult work than they could do on their own).  For example, they would put two students in front of the class and based on the dialogue that was read before them, the students were expected to create their own dialogue based on words they already knew.  This is next to impossible for these students, especially if they aren’t used to that style of learning.  Instead, what they could do is to focus on smaller bits of the conversation, model it, practice it with students, and then in VERY small ways ask them to change it.

Basically, they are mere steps away from already implementing good foreign language teaching techniques.  I was impressed, and I feel like I could do a lot of good very quickly here.  They asked me to teach the next day’s lesson and I prepared one specifically to show them how they could make this concept work.

I started by reviewing with the students some very basic words that pretty much all of them knew.  Foods like hot dogs, apples, tomatoes, meat, etc.  Also, I threw in things like pens, pencils, paper and books.  Then, we discussed who sells all of these things (the grocer sells apples, the butcher sells meat, etc).  In the book, they were learning grammatical concepts such as how “some” and “any” are used in a sentence.  Then, I wrote on the board:

  1. Greet
  2. Ask
  3. Response
  4. Goodbye

I didn’t write the actual phrases (such as hello, or do you have any books), I just wrote the order of the conversation they were to use.  I then modeled how to go about a conversation like this with the students.

“Hello”

“Hello”

“Do you have any meat?”

“Yes, I have some meat, here”

“Thank you, good bye”

“Bye”

The game after that was that each teacher who was there (there were 3 other teachers observing me in the classroom) was selling something.  Students would go up to them, follow the pattern of the conversation and ask to buy something from them.  Sometimes the teachers had the item, sometimes they didn’t and the student would have to ask again.  Most of the students figured out how to, in a normal conversation, ask again (they have strategic competence, to those linguist geeks out there).

“Do you have any apples?”

“No, I don’t have any.”

“Oh.  Do you have any tomatoes?”

“Yes, I do.”

Etc.

If a student went through the conversation without making a mistake, the student got a sticker.  The first student with 4 stickers (one from each teacher, including myself), got a prize.  I feel like it worked out really well, but for some reason I got the idea that the teachers didn’t like it.  I just didn’t see them getting into it and I have no idea why.  Hopefully that is just my own self not understanding their culture well.

It was a very good trip and I think I can do a lot of good in Devechi.  I couldn’t ask for a better place to work. 

This is the toothpaste they gave m…
This is the toothpaste they gave …
Davachi
photo by: cbstevens