I joined the Peace Corps, and in September of 2009 I was sent to Azerbaijan. I had a couple months to prepare for my 27 months service, but I was a procrastinator and never seemed to worry about my future. I was prepared for Azerbaijan, but in truth who could have been? As it’s a place you need to visit to understand. I spent my first three months living in Sumguayit, a city outside Baku. I spent those four months learning Azerbaijani and training to become a Youth Development Volunteer. On December 10th I moved to Goranboy, Azerbaijan. Goranboy is a five hour bus ride west from Baku and 45 minutes from Ganja. Goranboy is not known for anything in particular and is even called ‘unremarkable’ by various travel books on Azerbaijan. The research I did about Goranboy before my arrival asking my Azerbaijani family and friends brought up comments like ‘Oh no, you can’t go there! There is nothing there!’, ‘It will be very hot in the summer’, and ‘It is dangerous there, there are many soldiers’. Needless to say I was nervous about Goranboy, the place I was to call home for the next two years.
I arrived in Goranboy and first noticed how clean it seemed compared to my previous home, Sumguayit. Goranboy was much more spacious; the public buildings were brand new, the schools were brightly painted, there was only one building more than two stories. I was a foreigner in Goranboy, but did not feel like one for long. Goranboy’s size and the attitude of the people allowed for my to feel like part of the community. Students referred to me as teacher, friends called me sister, neighbors called me daughter, I became part of a family that is Goranboy.
Goranboy changed while I was there, a town without traffic lights had two by the time I left more over the population of the city expanded with new Internally Displaced Persons housing, and a sports center with an indoor swimming pool was established.
I lived in Goranboy with another Peace Corps Volunteer, Amy King. She and I were each other’s salvation because although we both loved Azerbaijan it was nice to come home and make American meals from time to time and speak English. We also opened our home to friends; my fondest memories are when kids would stop by and ask to borrow softball equipment for the afternoon or when a neighbor would ask for sugar. My favorite night in Goranboy was when my co-workers came over for a pizza party. My co-workers were hesitant to let me make the pizza because they were convinced I did not know how to cook, but I was certain that if they made the pizza the sauce would be ketchup and mayonnaise. They ended up enjoying the pizza and we spent the night gossiping and dancing to Michael Jackson. People in Azerbaijan are fun, outgoing, and opinionated but in public they are often shy and afraid to be noticed. Nonetheless by the end of the night we had made up our own dance to ‘Thriller’ and taken dozens of pictures dressing up in various outfits. My relationship with my Azerbaijani friends was different than my relationships with my American friends but in no way was it better or worse. I learned that friendship’s can be found anywhere; cultural and religious differences are not a hindrance but can be helpful in forming relationships.
On November 19th 2011, I left Goranboy but not forever. I hope to go back to see the growth of Goranboy. I imagine that Goranboy will continue to develop with new opportunities for the people. As opportunities continue to expand, others too will see Goranboy as I do, that is quite remarkable place with wonderful, caring and striving people.
Post written by Katherine Knisley, a recently Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who came to the Karabakh Foundation for “Take an RPCV to Work Day”