Week Three in Baku| June 14, 2013
Shorter post today, folks - it’s been a busy week. I’ve been working on project reports and updating descriptions of completed projects. The program has done a number of projects, mostly repairing roads, replacing or installing water lines, and installing tents, along with a couple electricity and medical clinic projects. The water lines and health clinics have the most obvious benefit, as clean, potable water is a matter of health, and not having to haul it over distances improves access and frees up time for other activities. Roads clearly help transport, but what I’ve learned is that in these small villages, when a bad road meets bad weather, kids don’t make it to school, which could have long term effects on educational outcomes.
The tents are the most interesting, and for me were the least intuitive beyond the obvious. But these are not ordinary tents, like a pavillion tent at a fair or something. They are big enough to accomodate even 250 people, tables and chairs, and I think they include a kitchen. More importantly, without a tent in the community, they have to spend a lot of money transporting and renting one from other communities. Weddings could be delayed while the couple saves up (if they can), but what a burden on a family trying to bury a loved on. This sort of cultural and social improvement may not save everyone’s health, but in my travels I’ve come to realize that it isn’t much better to feed the body and starve the soul than the other way around.
The best thing about these projects is that they really are a lot of bang for your buck* (or manat). I know there’s a lot of budget woe, and the whole world has been figuring out how to tighten the belt. But these projects really help people (and with the most basic elements of life) and also represent America to other parts of the world. Some countries spend massive amounts of money promoting themselves abroad, and we really don’t the way we used to. For less than $20,000, these projects are improving the health, education, and livelihoods of entire communities in rural areas that are otherwise too small to be on any agenda. I know sometimes people wonder why we put taxpayer money to work for people far away, but it’s usually a lot less of the budget than we think, and I think it does a lot of good for people here and will serve America and her interests in the long term as well.
We’re a bit in a hurry-up-and-wait mode while the work plan approval is pending. Hopefully it’ll be approved soon and the organization.
As promised, a cookie report: success. The first batch I had tried to eyeball a stick of butter and that was a mistake. I’ve taken flack on behalf of the U.S. for years now because of how we measure (the metric system: trading soul for easier math), but I always go to bat for our cooking measurements. Why? Because if it’s all in cups, I don’t need a scale, and I can use any cup I want. So, with the proportions right (using one cup to measure everything), they were less pancake-y (definitely cookies), didn’t overspread, and I was able to give some to my boss and his family as a thank you for letting me hitch a ride with them to Mass, and a bunch for the office as a thanks for the warm welcome and for the ladies who always offer and share their salad with me. This week I also channeled the Ukrainian church back in Williamsburg and made pirohi/pierogi/pelmeni, and I have cherries I’m planning to turn into jam and use to make vareniki (basically pirohi with sweet fillings).
The other day, my landlady invited me over, so we spent a few hours chatting and drinking tea (plus I got to give her daughter French braids). At a certain point, she asked me whether I thought pizza was American or Italian, and then said that she had a recipe and would I say if it were American or Italian pizza. Then she said it had potatoes, which was my first clue. She wanted to make it, so she ran to the store and started cooking.
You may not be surprised to learn that it was not pizza. She cut up potato almost like rough cut fries and fried them on the stove for a while before adding egg, chicken hotdog, peppers and tomatoes and baking it. It tasted good and I told her it wasn’t pizza but was something like a cross between a hash and a Spanish Tortilla (although for either the potato was cut quite large). I’ve since heard that in Turkey they make a dish like that and call it pizza. But there’s a lot of Italians where I grew up, I've been to Italy, and there’s no better pizza than Regina’s in the North End of Boston, so I say with confidence pizza’s gotta have dough, sauce, and topping.
I don’t have an oven, so I’ve done a bit of research online and found out how to make pizza on the stovetop. I’d like to repay her generosity so I’m hoping to make her and her family some pizza soon. I’ve made pizza dough and baked pizza plenty of times, but I’ve never made sauce and I’m skeptical about what cheeses will be both available and affordable. The actually cooking looks just like grilling pizza, so that probably is the least of my worries. On the bright side, tomatoes are cheap, so I can mess that up a lot.
Anyway, back to work for me before a long weekend.
*Nerdy trivia moment: I got a chance to visit the Tennessee State Museum, and learned that the term “buck” for dollar comes from the early frontier days of the U.S. when one buckskin could earn a man a dollar.