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A good ambassador to Azerbaijan

Lake Oswego's Jody Grant survives, thrives in a strange land
by: VERN UYETAKE, Jody Grant is now looking toward the future in Lake Oswego after spending a remarkable 27 months in the country of Azerbaijan. The creativity and ingenuity she gained there will “work for anything I want to do.”

There were times when Jody Grant wanted to end her Peace Corps sojourn in Azerbaijan. Right away.

As in immediately, if not sooner. After being afflicted by too much heat, too much cold, awful water, class clowns or the bathroom that was like a chamber of horrors.

'I said, 'I'm going to catch the next damn plane out of here!'' Grant said with a laugh.

But the young teacher from Lake Oswego stayed for the full term of 27 months. Ultimately, not even the bathroom was enough to drive her away. Grant left her village of Shamakhi a better person. And she left Shamakhi a better place.

'I'm glad I went there. I really am,' Grant said. 'I don't think two years was a crazy amount of time. Now I feel I can do anything, whether it's traveling in Europe or being stuck somewhere. I'm not as daunted by any task.

'The creativity and ingenuity in spirit I gained there will work for anything I want to do in the future.'

In 2006, with her background as an English teacher, Grant was ready for some changes in her life. She had a nagging desire to become a writer, plus having an in-depth experience in a foreign country was something she always wanted to do.

'I was at a place in life where I could do it,' Grant said. 'I had finished grad school and I had no other commitments. I thought I would do it before I was stuck in another endeavor.'

The Peace Corps responded by sending her to a very strange place - Azerbaijan, a secular Muslim country of about 9 million people, located south of Russia and north of Iran on the Caspian Sea.

'I got to pick the general area,' Grant said.

But the specifics of Azerbaijan are not that great. It is a desert country with temperature often above the 100-degree level.

'It's kind of ugly,' Grant said. 'Coming from the Pacific Northwest it was visually very jarring. They've got a huge, huge garbage problem over there. It smells bad. It was not a beautiful, pristine area, like you think of when you join the Peace Corps.'

Truly, Azerbaijan is a very unusual place. It may not look good or smell good, but it has 'a ridiculous amount of oil money.' The result is a country quite modern in some ways and quite backward in others.

'You had boys with camera phones,' Grant said. 'Then you had these ridiculous bathrooms.'

As for water, 'You could only use it a couple hours a day. The water was terrible in the summer and frozen in the winter. The pipes are all exposed because they're not insulated.'

Heat: 'In the winter the gas went off and on, so you would use wood, and you could only heat one room.'

Recreation was limited.

'I read 227 books over there. I read all of the big books I had been meaning to read, like War and Peace. I also drank a lot of tea.'

What Grant was there for, of course, was to teach English to Azerbaijanians, especially children. Grant didn't step into a Blackboard Jungle-type situation, but she still had some daunting challenges.

'The classrooms have no discipline at all,' Grant said. 'You can't fail, other than absolutely never showing up. There's no consequences to bad behavior. When you have 15 students allowed to do anything they want, they can be a handful.

'They wrestle, they talk or they don't pay attention at all. It was like I had seven class clowns instead of just one. I was able to engage them, but it took so much more effort.'

Grant admitted, 'I never did get used to their idea of child rearing.'

But she did find a way to teach. Grant used interactive teaching using games, colors and art, incorporating them with language.

'I introduced storybooks,' Grant said. 'My mom (Judy Rossner of Lake Oswego) and Darian Book Aid sent me a lot of books. There were some local legends and I would write them into English. That got them really excited. We would debate in English whether the endings were correct or not.'

(Azerbaijani - also called Azeri - is the most widely spoken language but there are more than a dozen other native dialects spoken in Azerbaijan).

This was very important because, 'The people don't have access to outside material. The children don't speak Russian. They have no sports center. They play soccer but they don't know the rules. A lot of them have satellite TV, but their access to the outside world is very passive.'

This being the case, the Azerbaijanians' view of Americans was extremely off target.

'American TV and movies are all they know,' Grant said. 'They think all Americans are rich and live in big homes and that they yell at each other all the time, just like they do on soap operas. They think America makes war for oil. They did not have a good concept of Americans.

'It was eye-opening for them to find out about poverty in the U.S. It was stunning for them to find there are so many practicing Muslims in the USA.'

Personally, Grant tried to change these perceptions.

'I felt there were two things I was doing there,' she said. 'One, I was transferring skills. Two, in a simple way I tried to be an ambassador. I always dressed correctly, I spoke responsibly, I followed their customs and traditions. I learned their language.

'I think I was a good ambassador.'

The Azerbaijanians got most excited when Grant talked their talk.

'They're so overjoyed when you use their language. They say, 'It's so beautiful, you know our language!' '

Aside from the occasional urge to catch a jet plane home, Grant did an excellent job of adjusting to this unusual country.

'Once you get used to it, it's not so bad,' she said. 'Yes, you have to wear mittens when you read. But you can get used to anything. Even the freezing bathroom and the clothes freezing into solid shapes. I took a videotape of a friend knocking on her underwear.

'In a funny way it was like we were all camping indoors. We were all sharing this bizarre experience. If someone had told me what I would have to get used to, it would have been daunting. But taking things day by day, it never felt insurmountable.

'I couldn't feel sorry for myself when there was an 80-year-old grandmother doing everything I was doing. I thought to myself, 'You'll be going back to a washing machine in two years.

'The only time I felt viscerally homesick was when I went on vacation in Romania. It looks like the Northwest, and it made me miss our green trees and water and fresh air.'

Ultimately, it was the people who made the Azerbaijan experience so rich for Grant. Her friendships there only slowly ripened over time, but they came to be something of real value. Even something to celebrate.

'It's a very Muslim country, but they know about Christmas,' Grant said. 'They assumed I was a Christian, so they decided to celebrate Jesus Day for me. Actually, I'm a Unitarian, but it would have just been too hard to explain Unitarianism to them.

'They said, 'We must have a party,' so the oldest son of the family I stayed with got this scrawny white turkey and brought it home, spread out its wingspan and said, 'We got you your Jesus turkey!' It was so skinny it was hard to figure out how to fix it. We ended up having turkey kabobs and traditional salads.'

In the midst of this great feast, the room suddenly went dark due to an all too common electricity blackout.

Not to worry.

'The police knew we would be the only home celebrating Christmas,' Grant said. 'So they came to the house and said, 'we'll run in this electric line.' So we had this single light bulb over the table. They made such a huge effort. I was so touched.

'I think things like that are why people join the Peace Corps. I had lots of moments like that.'