Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Azerbaijan
- 1 Communications
- 2 Housing and Site Location
- 3 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 4 Food and Diet
- 5 Transportation
- 6 Geography and Climate
- 7 Social Activities
- 8 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 9 Personal Safety
- 10 Rewards and Frustrations
The reliability of mail service in Azerbaijan is uneven. Letters might arrive in as few as 10 days, take as long as six weeks, or not arrive at all. Heavy fees are assessed on some packages, depending on what they contain, and you might find items missing. Accordingly, we strongly recommend that you ask family and friends to number their letters consecutively so you can determine what is and what is not reaching you. We also advise you to discourage people from sending you packages or valuable items through the mail. You will be responsible for paying any fees levied on packages.
During pre-service training, your friends and family can mail letters or packages to you at the following address:
“Your Name,” PCT
Main P.O. Box 77
Your mail will be delivered to the training site at least once a week. Once you know your assigned site, you will be responsible for informing your family and friends of your permanent mailing address.
Volunteers can make international calls from the larger cities, but they are expensive (over $2 per minute for a cellphone call to the United States and about $6 per minute by land line). Several calling cards available in the United States offer much lower rates for calls to Azerbaijan (e.g., 15 to 20 cents a minute). In general, land lines are limited and reception is uneven.
You should not expect to find a telephone in your home. However, a number of cellular telephone companies have sprung up in Baku and have effectively blanketed the country.
All of the systems use GSM (for global system mobile), so most U.S. cellphones will not work in Azerbaijan. You may bring your own cellphone, but you must ensure that your U.S. phone company has “unlocked” the phone so that an Azerbaijani SIM card can be inserted.
Some Volunteers will be asked to be wardens (i.e., points of contact for a small number of other Volunteers when they leave their sites or in the event of family or other emergencies). Peace Corps will issue cellphones to wardens for this purpose, but the Volunteer must reimburse the Peace Corps for personal use of these phones.
In Azerbaijan, a cellular phone is a necessary item for communicating with staff members and fellow Volunteers and for ensuring your safety and security. If you do not arrive in-country with a cellular phone, the Peace Corps will issue one to you. You will keep this phone for your two years of service and be responsible for returning it to Peace Corps in approximately the same condition as it was issued to you. If the phone should become lost or stolen during your service, you will be held financially liable for its replacement. If you are in possession of a Peace Corps-issued phone or a personal phone, Peace Corps will pay for repairing your phone should it become damaged. In order to have your phone repaired, you can either bring it with you to Baku and we have the phone repaired and pay for this expense; or you may pay to repair the phone yourself, and we will reimburse you for this expense upon submission of a proper receipt. Unless you are making calls in your capacity as a warden or deputy warden while in Azerbaijan, the cost of using phones will be your responsibility and is presumed to be covered by your monthly living allowance.In the case of an emergency, your family can call the Peace Corps’ Office of Special Services in Washington, D.C., and that office will immediately contact Peace Corps/Azerbaijan. The relevant numbers are listed at the end of this book.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
The use of computers is growing rapidly throughout Azerbaijan, but because of frequent power interruptions, e-mail and Internet access is limited mainly to Baku and several other larger cities. Most Volunteers do not have e-mail access at their sites, but can send and receive e-mail at Internet cafes in the larger towns. (Currently, the charge is approximately 40 cents an hour.) A few schools to which Volunteers are assigned have computers, and development agencies are keen to link schools to the Internet. In fact, assisting schools in applying for funds for connectivity and equipment is an important secondary activity for Volunteers.
Housing and Site Location
As a Volunteer, you will live in a town or village outside of Baku. Peace Corps/Azerbaijan staff, with some consideration of your desires, selects your site carefully, its principal considerations being safety and security and matching the needs of the local community with your skills and aptitudes. We want to ensure that your talents are as fully engaged during your tour of service as possible.
Your housing might be a private room in a family’s dwelling, a shared house, or a small apartment. You will live with a host family during training as part of your language and cultural orientation. Upon being sworn in as a Volunteer, you will again live with an Azerbaijani host family in your assigned community for the first six months of your service. The Peace Corps will select your host family for this period, except that you may choose a different family for the last two months with prior approval by the Peace Corps. Just as we make every effort to select sites that will fully engage you, we expect that you will make every effort to absorb Azerbaijani culture by spending at least one-fourth of your service living directly with a host country family. After this six-month period, alternative housing arrangements may be considered in consultation with your program manager and the medical officer. Many Volunteers remain in host family housing for their entire service. In some parts of Azerbaijan, appropriate independent housing is scarce; you should prepare for the possibility of living with a host family for your entire service.
Keep in mind that there is no guarantee of continuous electricity, running water, or phone service. Some villages and towns have only a few hours of electricity a day (or none at all), especially in the winter. Heat may come from a wood stove. Although you will have access to a kitchen and bathing facilities (in some cases, bucket baths), hot water and running water may be a luxury and there is likely to be a squat-style toilet. Bathroom facilities may be outside the main house in a separate building. Thus, housing will not be glamorous, but the Peace Corps staff will do its utmost to help you adjust to the new environment.
Note that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, despite the cease-fire agreement in 1994, gave rise to a huge and persistent resettlement problem. The need to absorb these refugees and internally displaced persons has caused housing scarcities in some parts of Azerbaijan, and Volunteers will need to be flexible in their housing expectations.
Living Allowance and Money Management
As a Volunteer in Azerbaijan, you will receive several types of allowances, which will be deposited into your own bank account.
You will receive a living allowance to cover your basic living expenses, disbursed on a monthly basis in manat, the local currency. This allowance is reviewed at least once a year through a market survey to ensure that it is adequate. It is meant to cover food, work-related transportation, recreation and entertainment, and incidental expenses, such as postage, film, reading materials, stationery, occasional replacement of clothes, and toiletries. If you elect to use a cellphone or the Internet, their cost must also come out of the living allowance. You will also receive an amount for housing as part of the living allowance, based on the actual lease agreement between you and your landlord or a set amount to be paid to your host family.
A one time settling-in allowance is also provided for the purchase of items necessary to set up housekeeping at your site. You will receive a travel allowance to cover transportation and lodging costs when traveling for official, medical, or programmatic reasons. You will receive a leave allowance of $24 per month of service, paid with the monthly living allowance.
Volunteers are also eligible for a tutor allowance to pay for continued language study after pre-service training.
Payments are made on a monthly basis upon presentation of a completed tutor reimbursement form. Peace Corps/Azerbaijan will cover tutoring in Russian, but only once you have demonstrated a certain level of competence in Azeri.
Most Volunteers will find that they can live comfortably in Azerbaijan with these allowances. Volunteers in all Peace Corps countries are strongly discouraged from supplementing their income with money brought from home. Consistent with the philosophy that development and learning occur most effectively when people live and work together, it is important that Volunteers live modestly, by the standards of the people whom they serve. Your allowances will be deposited into a personal account at the International Bank of Azerbaijan and you will receive an ATM card from the Peace Corps to withdraw those funds.
Traveler’s checks are not commonly used in Azerbaijan, so we discourage you from bringing them. Although use of credit cards is rare outside the capital, they can be useful for vacation travel. The International Bank of Azerbaijan ATMs also accept major U.S. bank cards. Azerbaijan is primarily a cash economy, so exchanging currency at official exchanges or banks is very easy.
Food and Diet
Azerbaijan’s geographical location on the historic Silk Road is reflected in its cuisine, a mixture of Turkish, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian, with a dollop of Russian. Its fertile soils produce a huge variety of fruits and vegetables (e.g., apples, cherries, grapes, olives, lemons, persimmons, melons, watermelons, raspberries, strawberries, currants, plums, peaches, pears, quince, pomegranates, tomatoes, beans, beets, bell peppers, cabbage, chickpeas, cucumbers, carrots, eggplants, lentils, lettuce, potatoes, squashes, and onions), as well as a variety of nuts, spices, and teas. You will immediately notice the delicious taste of Azerbaijani produce in fresh salads. During the winter, however, the availability and affordability of fresh fruits and vegetables decreases, so many families in small towns and villages have extensive gardens and preserve fruits and vegetables for the winter.
The traditional diet leans toward a variety of stews or soups made with lamb, one or more vegetables, and potatoes. Also ubiquitous are shashlik, skewers of barbecued lamb. Beef and edible innards are widely available, though they are not as popular as lamb or mutton. Chicken and fish are widely available along the coast, in the south, and in major towns, but less so elsewhere. One of the special treats in Azerbaijan is caviar. Bread is served at almost every meal, and “breaking bread” with people is taken literally.
Although meat is central to the Azerbaijani diet, it is possible for vegetarians to maintain a meatless diet throughout their service. In addition to the fruits and vegetables mentioned above, dairy products (cheese, eggs, milk, sour cream, and yogurt) and grains are widely available. It may seem strange to your host family that you prefer not to eat meat, but they are likely to respect that decision and accommodate your needs accordingly.
Typical drinks include bottled water and soft drinks, fruit juices, beer, and vodka. The traditional drink of choice is tea (chai), offered as a sign of hospitality. It is sweetened with either jam or sugar and drunk from glasses. Coffee is available, but outside of the capital, expect to receive a packet of instant Nescafé. In rural areas, alcoholic beverages are less widely available, and drinking them is frowned upon (in keeping with the Muslim culture).
Azerbaijanis typically travel by train, bus, or taxi. Trains tend to be cheap but slow. Electrichka are bare-bones trains with wooden benches, but more comfortable overnight express trains link the major cities. Large, comfortable, modern buses run by the Camel and Somnez companies travel among the larger cities. Most people, however, use public transportation or marshrutkas, private eight- to 10-seat minibuses that link virtually all villages with towns and cities. The private companies, while more expensive than the public ones, are still relatively cheap. Taxis are widely available, but tend to be much more expensive.
Riding a bicycle is not a common practice in Azerbaijan, and for safety and security reasons, Peace Corps/Azerbaijan does not recommend that you purchase or use one. Volunteers and trainees are prohibited from owning or operating motor vehicles (e.g., automobiles, motorcycles, or three-wheeled cycles) or riding on motorcycles or in motorcycle sidecars as a passenger. Except inside their own community, Volunteers are also prohibited from riding motorized vehicles after dark due to the bad conditions of roads. Violation of these policies may result in the termination of your Volunteer service.
Geography and Climate
The easternmost country in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan is bordered by the Greater Caucasus Mountains in the northeast, the Caspian Sea in the east, Russia (Daghestan) and Georgia in the north, Armenia in the west, and Iran in the south.
Azerbaijan’s climate is generally dry and continental, but with great regional variations. Baku, for example, has some 300 days of sunshine but, like Chicago, is famous for the strong winds that periodically blow off the Caspian Sea. Its summer temperatures often exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and its wind-chill factors can dramatically lower winter temperatures from their usual 40-degree levels. Inland, winter temperatures are much colder. Snow in the mountains is frequent, and villages can be completely cut off. Spring brings snowmelt and the possibility of flooding. Central Azerbaijan, by comparison, is dry and semidesert-like. The forested south experiences an atypical autumn, with October rains, while the orchards near Quba in the northeast get occasionally heavy rainfall in the spring. March, April, May, October, and November, on the whole, tend to be wonderful times for parents and friends to visit.
Social activities vary depending on where you are located and may include taking part in local festivals, parties, storytelling, family events, and dances. Many of the larger towns have outdoor cafés, small museums, and movie theaters (though the movies tend to be foreign and dubbed). Baku has a wide array of entertainment possibilities, including theater, opera, ballet, art galleries, museums, restaurants, beaches, and sports facilities. Baku’s Ichari Shahar, or Old City, is a medieval district of narrow alleys and winding cobblestone passages, featuring antiques and carpet shops, restaurants, mosques, caravansaries, and mausoleums. Outside of Baku, Quba is especially beautiful in the spring, when its apple orchards are in full bloom. It is also well-known for its carpet weaving. Lahij, to the west of Baku, is an attractive ancient village famous for its copperware, and Sheki, nestled on the edge of the Caucasus range, has both spectacular scenery and numerous ruins. Hikers are rewarded with views of waterfalls, snow-covered mountains, and fields of wildflowers. Horseback riding is also a possibility.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
One of the difficulties of finding your place as a Peace Corps Volunteer is fitting into the local culture while maintaining your own cultural identity and acting like a professional all at the same time. It is not an easy situation to resolve, and we can only provide you with guidelines that show respect for your professional colleagues and that reflect positively not only on you but also on your fellow Volunteers, your host family, and on the Peace Corps as an assistance organization. Maintaining your personal style while presenting a professional appearance according to Azerbaijani cultural standards may be challenging. Professional dress means clean and conservative clothing, not necessarily dressy suits or coats and ties, though many male teachers wear shirt, ties and occasionally coats to class. Female teachers must wear skirts to class. Dress for organizations varies from professional to business casual. In general, Azerbaijanis dress more formally than Americans do and take great pride in their appearance. Outside of the house, Azerbaijani men often wear suits, even while farming. Although it is not uncommon to see fashionable young women in Baku wearing short skirts and tight pants, this mode of dress is not acceptable for Volunteers. Foreign women are already generally seen as less conservative in behavior, so clothing that is too short or revealing will attract unwanted attention. In the towns and villages where Volunteers are posted, conservative Islamic values prevail, so longer skirts and blouses, pants that are not too tight, and sweaters that cover the shoulders are appropriate for female Volunteers.
The Peace Corps expects you to behave in a way that not only fosters respect toward you but also reflects well on both the Peace Corps and the United States. You will receive an orientation to appropriate behavior and cultural sensitivity during pre-service training. As a Volunteer, you have the status of an invited guest and must be sensitive to the habits, tastes, and taboos of your hosts. For example, the possession or use of illegal drugs, or even a rumor of the use of drugs, can have such a damaging effect on the Peace Corps program that there is zero tolerance in its regard.
Ninety-three percent of the population of Azerbaijan is Muslim and Islam forbids alcohol at all times and in all circumstances. Although many Azerbaijanis do not observe this ban, some do refrain from drinking, especially during Orujlug (the Muslim fast) and Ashura (the religious mourning period of the Shiites). NOTE: Azerbaijanis views towards religion and practices like abstaining from alcohol are as varied as they are in the U.S. For every Azerbaijani male that doesn't drink alcohol for religious reasons, there seems to be at least two or three who do. Even with that, women are almost never allowed to drink.
Teachers, especially need to be models to their students; this profession commands tremendous respect in Azerbaijan. Teacher Volunteers should always look neat and tidy and should never be seen drinking (if a female) or drunk (if a male).
You need to be aware that any behavior that jeopardizes the Peace Corps’ mission and reputation in Azerbaijan or your personal safety may lead to administrative separation— a decision on the part of the Peace Corps to terminate your service. The Volunteer Handbook has more information on the grounds for administrative separation.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are uncommon, but not unheard of, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur.
The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Azerbaijan. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Among the more important set of policies and procedures is your responsibility to obtain the permission of your local supervisor and/or Peace Corps program manager when you wish to leave your site. Volunteers must also provide advance notification of their departure and return to their sites. Distinct from annual leave (which accrues at the rate of two days for every month of service and then take at times approved by your local supervisor, program manager and the country director if you leave Azerbaijan), “out-of-site” leave on weekends or at other times during your service is not a right, but a privilege, and it is administered in accordance to polices established by the country director and approved by the regional director. These can be revoked at the country director’s discretion. Peace Corps/Azerbaijan’s out-of-site policy essentially provides for one out-of-site weekend per month. Although this policy is grounded in your program responsibilities to your community, it is also necessary so that the Peace Corps can reach you at a moment’s notice in the event of family or other emergencies. These policies are taken so seriously that lack of compliance can, and usually will, lead to administrative separation from the Peace Corps.
Rewards and Frustrations
The conditions of life for Volunteers affect them differently. Do you need a lot of privacy or very little? Are you oblivious to dirt or fairly sensitive to it? Nearly all Volunteers, at some point, find the conditions under which they live and work to be difficult or challenging. Most experience feelings of discouragement and futility—usually during the first year of service. Things that were clear become unclear. The direction to take seems obscured. You may not feel in control of a situation, which can be frightening. When this happens, you may wonder whether you are really up to the job, whether you may have caused the problem, or whether what you are doing is really worthwhile. You may feel unusually fatigued, even though you have been working no harder than usual. You may find yourself short-tempered and annoyed at yourself and others.
You will be given a high degree of responsibility and independence in your work—perhaps more than in any other job you have had or will have. You will often find yourself in situations that require an ability to motivate yourself and your co-workers with little guidance from supervisors. You might work for months without seeing any visible impact from, or without receiving feedback on, your work. Development is a slow process. Positive progress most often comes after the combined efforts of several Volunteers over the course of many years. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results, knowing that the frustration of “not getting anything done” usually derives from the realities of the situation rather than from your own inadequacies.
To overcome these difficulties, you will need maturity, flexibility, open-mindedness, and resourcefulness. Azerbaijanis are warm, friendly, and hospitable, and the Peace Corps staff, your co-workers, and fellow Volunteers will support you during times of challenge as well as in moments of success. If you are able to make the commitment to integrate into your community and work hard, you will be a successful Volunteer.