People do smile in Central Asia (and they dance, too)
by Nina Nelan, KF12 Azerbaijan
As my plane approached Baku’s airport, I had some mixed feelings about where I’d be living for the next 3 months. It was a world away from Colorado, which I’d left 20 hours earlier. All was well, however, as soon as I saw the friendly face of Ilkin, who works for the Baku branch of AqroInvest Credit Union, one of the microfinance institutions (MFIs) I will be working with during my time in Azerbaijan. He swept me out of the airport and delivered me safely to the flat of the outgoing Kiva Fellow, Yelena, who has been working at my other MFI, Komak Credit Union.
I’ve not yet been to the rural areas to meet my MFIs’ borrowers, but I’m assured these visits will come soon. Like many around the world (excluding, perhaps, Americans), Azerbaijanis take long holidays during August. Thus, many of the MFIs’ employees are off visiting family in the cooler areas of the country, or are abroad. This means that all of my impressions of Azerbaijan and its people are based entirely on less than 2 weeks in the capital city of Baku. I am easily identified as a non-Azerbaijani for some reason (ha), so I was stopped in the street by an Australian tourist the other day. “This is a really tough place,” he said. Perhaps he was talking about the heat, because I find many things about Baku to be appealing.
First, there is the beloved Lada. Others before me have written (joked) about its ubiquity here and in other Central Asian and Eastern European countries, but it adds some much needed character to the streets of Baku, which are seemingly overrun with Mercedes, BMWs, Toyotas, and Hyundais. Long live the Lada, I say.
And then there’s the produce available at every street corner. It’s a treat to sample Azerbaijani fruits and vegetables, herbs, and nuts, and to attempt to duplicate the wonderful dishes made by Raziyya, the chief accountant at AqroInvest. She makes it look so easy, but she must be withholding a secret ingredient because they don’t come out quite right for me.
And what would an evening here be without a stroll by the sea? (Hot and airless, is what.) Yes, Baku citizens stroll and a beautiful boulevard follows the Caspian seafront to accommodate them. It is 3km long right now, but expected to expand to 25km by 2015 (perfect for a long run!). Thousands fill the area as soon as the evil sun begins its descent every day; some ride the merry-go-round and others the Ferris wheel, but most are content to just…stroll.
None of these things compare to the friendly people of Azerbaijan, though. At first, I believed the myth that Central Asians do not smile because I couldn’t coax one out of a single pedestrian as I walked to work last week. But peoples’ street personas have nothing in common with who they are in offices and stores and restaurants and homes. Azerbaijanis are as warm and welcoming and smiley as anyone else in the world, and many have gone out of their way to help me adjust to life in Baku. Tamilla, the Kiva Coordinator at AqroInvest, ensures that I arrive at work and at home safely each day. And Ayden, the director of Komak, calls Yelena (and maybe me, one day!) his daughter.
And their hearts are huge. Not only because of how they have welcomed me, but because of how they’ve devoted themselves to helping the poor of Azerbaijan. Tamilla understands that I am suffering from some cognitive dissonance right now, since people in Baku seem relatively well off. It’s in the rural areas, she says, where I will see and understand how poor Azerbaijan is and why people may need loans. But I’m certain the people there have the same Azerbaijani hearts as Ilkin, Raziyya, Tamilla and Ayden, and I can’t wait to meet them.
For your viewing pleasure, some pictures of Yelena’s going away party at Komak, where Yelena and I were the only women available to dance with 4 very enthusiastic Azerbaijani men.