A Tale of Two Countries: Father and Son in the Peace Corps

A Tale of Two Countries

Father and Son in the Peace Corps

By Mason Robbins, RPCV, Haiti 1999-2001, and Joel Robbins, RPCV, Azerbaijan, 2007-2009

Mason--We like to be able to boast to others, “Been there, done that.” Saying it makes us feel older, more experienced, wiser, more proud and condescending, maybe, when we are young. Saying it to my 63-year-old father makes me proud. Not proud of me, proud of him. My father served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Azerbaijan from 2007 to 2009. I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Haiti from 1999 to 2001.

Not long after he began his service I noticed numerous similarities between his experiences in Azerbaijan and what I experienced in Haiti. Despite Azerbaijan being a predominately Muslim country and Haiti being a predominantly Catholic and Voodoo country and the countries being a half a world apart, they share many similarities (and a few differences). I offer below a few similarities I observed:

Azerbaijan: Women don’t drive.
Haiti: Women may drive, but rarely do. Hardly anyone has a car.

Azerbaijan: The population is Muslim.
Haiti: The population is Catholic, mostly. Voodoo mostly too.

Azerbaijan: Sheep graze the settlement streets.
Haiti: Yes, only they’re goats.

Azerbaijan: Public transportation is crowded but cheap and plentiful.
Haiti: Exactly.

Azerbaijan: Almost everyone–even shepherds, construction workers and butchers–dresses nicely, no shorts, few sneakers and t-shirts.
Haiti: Every visitor I’ve taken to Haiti comments on how nicely Haitians dress.

Azerbaijan: For the most part, only men go swimming.
Haiti: Okay, so year ‘round it’s hotter in Haiti. Everyone goes swimming--swimwear or clothes optional. Oh yeah, and in Haiti it’s called bathing and there’s soap involved.

Azerbaijan: I haven’t had running water for more than three weeks this winter. I sponge bathe out of small peanut cans of melted snow water heated on top of my brick oven.
Haiti: I never had running water. I paid the local boys about 30 cents to fetch one bucket of water from 3/4 mile down a steep ravine. One or two buckets per day to bathe, cook and flush the toilet.

Azerbaijan: Nice girls get engaged, then date, then marry.
Haiti: Girls from good families are courted, then marry.

Azerbaijan: Lots of engineers and college grads are out of work since Azerbaijan became independent after the breakup of the USSR.
Haiti: Haiti became independent in 1804, but political instability makes professional work hard to find.

Azerbaijan: Men gather at chayxanas, tea houses that have outside seating, to drink tea or beer, eat supper and/or play nerdt (similar to backgammon), chess and dominos.
Haiti: Men gather in any shady area and play dominos or cards and drink virgin white rum.

Azerbaijan: Women gather in courtyards or apartment stoops.
Haiti: Women gather in kitchens or markets.

Azerbaijan: Mosques make calls to prayer that are broadcast across the community.
Haiti: The church bells ring.

Azerbaijan: Cows, goats and sheep are butchered rigHaiti on the sidewalks.
Haiti: Of course. Walking your animal to the butchering location is much easier than butchering it somewhere else and carrying it to the customers.

Azerbaijan: Kids still play a version of hopscotch, join pickup games of soccer and enjoy being outside.
Haiti: There hardly is such a thing as playing inside. All sorts of games are played. Mostly jumping rope and soccer.

Azerbaijan: I often put on two pair of socks, a knit hat, two t-shirts, pajamas and gloves before I crawl into my sleeping bag.
Haiti: If I had anything other than a pair of shorts on, I would remove it before going to bed. It still didn’t help. Haiti is just hot!

Azerbaijan: All my sweaters and coats smell like bacon because my classrooms have stoves that burn green wood.
Haiti: The cities all reek with charcoal smoke, which everyone uses for cooking.

Azerbaijan: A lot of basic foods are sold in bulk, with scales using steel weights determining the price.
Haiti: Most basic foods are sold in bulk to ti machan (market ladies) who sell them in very small quantities because few have enough money to buy large quantities.

Azerbaijan: If I buy meat, the butcher just uses an ax to chop right through the bone and meat to produce whatever I want. Sheep and cow heads are part of the butcher shop displays, and they are also sold to make soup.
Haiti: Never did buy meat. There weren’t any butcher shops. They did eat every part of the animal though. I specifically remember one Sunday afternoon meal of fresh goat head.

Azerbaijan: There are several fruits that I still can’t name and never ate before coming here.
Haiti: I learned a lot of them but I still don’t know many.

Azerbaijan: Ball fields are shared by ball players and sheep.
Haiti: Yes, only goats again. Large grassy fields and grazing animals only make sense.

Azerbaijan: It’s hard to get work done at school when there’s no electricity, which is frequent.
Haiti: I lived in the Haitian countryside. Electricity wasn’t even an option. You’re spoiled, Dad. Back in my day, we didn’t have those newfangled cell phone gadgets either.

Azerbaijan: School classes run late, teachers don’t show up and frequently there are no books.
Haiti: Sounds familiar.

Azerbaijan: Went to the local police station to obtain a country passport. Waited 2 hours for the fifth time and still didn’t get the passport.
Haiti: Sounds like the runaround. Fortunately, I learned the Haitian language well enough I was able to exert pointed pressure and achieve my goal in such situations. Unfortunately, you’re a little older and the Azerbaijani language is much more difficult to learn than Haitian Creole. Good luck, Dad.

Azerbaijan: Boys, even teens, can be seen walking arm in arm.
Haiti: Young boys to older men can be seen walking hand in hand. It took me a while to feel comfortable holding another man’s hand while walking down the street. When you get back, Dad, I’m not holding your hand.

Azerbaijan: Gas is sold at most small “everything” shops in two liter bottles.
Haiti: The exact price of any liter bottle or glass coke bottle of gas is well known.

Azerbaijan: Apparently, if you honk your horn you can drive recklessly. Azerbaijanis love to honk their horns.
Haiti: I frightened many a family visitor with my horn-honking, reckless, Haitian-style driving. Dad, I can’t wait until I visit you. Hopefully you drive better than I do.

Joel--Mason said my journals, which I send home periodically, reminded him of his Peace Corps experiences. I visited him in Haiti, and to a degree they are the same, but I lived in the lap of luxury in Azerbaijan compared to his tenure in Haiti. Peace Corps doesn’t even place volunteers in Haiti anymore because of the political instability, health concerns and violence.

I was proud of Mason when he went to the Peace Corps, but envious too, because I had wanted to go since Kennedy initiated it in 1961, when I was a junior in high school. It wasn’t fair, I mused, for him to get to go and not me. College, marriage, 32 years of teaching, paying for college for wife Sara and my children, and other concerns kept me at home. So when he was in Haiti, I had to live my dream vicariously.

Luckily I got my chance, but I just about gave up during the application process. After months of applications, essays, doctors’ visits, interviews, forms, calls to Washington, D.C., etc., I told Mason I was thinking about giving up my PC dream. We had a son-father talk, during which he chewed me out for thinking of quitting. It reminded me of some of our father-son talks over the years, only I was on the receiving end of the conversation this time. Thank you, Mason. You paved the way by being brave, charitable and adventurous.

And, you need not have worried about my driving in Azerbaijan, PC wouldn’t let any of us drive. We used taksis, marshrutkas and avtobuses, which were more comfortable than the little Haitian tap-tap transports you had Sara and me ride in.

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