Sweat creeps up my shirt as my lungs fill with smoke, waiting to get through customs at the Baku International Airport. Foreign words bombard my ears and an old man translates the question, “Do you have anything to claim?” Squeezed through a door, I look around, desperately hoping she can find me. As an olive-skinned brunette comes up through the crowd of mustaches and fog, I am relieved to feel the familiarity of her hug. I have just travelled over thirty hours to visit my past foreign exchange students in Azerbaijan.
Not many people have heard of Azerbaijan. It is a small post-Soviet Union country that borders the Caspian Sea. My family only knows it because of our students. We chose one girl, Nara, from this country in 2008. When she contacted us about her friend three years later, we gladly opened our home to a second Nara. Having a student is a wonderful experience. As her year in the U.S. progresses, she becomes part of the family. That is why it was such a blessing to go to the girls’ country and do the same. Meeting “the Naras’” parents and families in Lankaran, learning their traditions, and seeing their homes, was endearing. It brought me closer to them and allowed them to show me their lives as my family did.
My favorite part of Azeri culture is the oily but fresh food that satisfied my hunger. Azeri’s have great respect for guests, and I was fed by a dozen of our students’ relatives. The table overflowed as yellow rice, flavorful chicken, stuffed eggplants, fresh flat bread and more were stacked on top of one another, leaving no room to eat. The intense meal was followed by a platter of brightly colored fruits, nuts, and candies served with decorative glasses of hot tea and homemade jam. Sparkling water, various fruit compotes, and tangy yogurt drinks washed it all down. My trip was made worth it the minute I sat down at a table.
Food is always exciting, but another great experience I had was attending an Azeri wedding. We started at the bride’s house, where the wedding party’s cars packed the street. The couple got into a heavily decorated car and led the parade to the groom’s house. Constant honking, furious driving and a constant need to be closest to the groom made for a crazy drive. Once at the destination, the bride stomped on a plate and took her first steps into her new home. She then took pictures with the youngest boy for good luck, and put honey on her door to make her married life sweet. After these traditions were completed, we headed to the wedding venue to enjoy a night of traditional food, live music and dancing.
Travelling is wonderful, but there are challenges. The main challenge I had in Azerbaijan was adjusting to the language. While my students speak great English, and many of their friends do as well, they often slipped into Azeri or Russian. I felt left out on many occasions and it was tough for the Nara’s to translate everything. I did, however, know a few words. I quickly learned “thank you very much” in order to relay my appreciation to the many people helping me. “Chox sagol” was in my everyday vocabulary. Not knowing Azeri worked out okay for me, but I would recommend learning the language of countries travelled. Nevertheless, my trip to Azerbaijan is a time I will never forget. The people I met, things I learned, and delicious food I constantly devoured, will be in my heart forever.
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