Monday, October 15, 2012

What I Missed

Let’s just get this off my chest quickly:




If someone can give me a combination of the three at once, I will be very impressed and grateful!!! (I’m thinking something in a burrito style)

There, now that those are out of the way, we can continue:

Smooth Highways – Oh how I have missed the smoothness of a well-paved highway, they obedience that comes with actual lanes, functioning stop lights, competent drivers and honest traffic officers. If I never ride another packed van reeking of body odor and cigarette smoke on an unpaved road again, it will be too soon!

Movie Theaters – Despite the absurd prices, to me there’s nothing better than watching a good movie on the big screen. I am so tried of watching poor quality copies of new movies on my tiny lap top screen.

Sports and Fitness – I’ve done my best to replace my lack of access to a gym with elastic bands, a jump rope, and yoga map. And I certainly get to play sports (Frisbee, soccer, and softball). But, it’s just not the same as a game of squash with my dad at the YMCA, a game of pick up hockey, throwing around a lacrosse ball with the boys, or having JMart run Ting and I through the ringer with a Crossfit workout at MAA.

Phone Plans – Buying minutes as I go is terribly frustrating. Given the number of national programs I manage, I have to be on the phone a lot, so I go through a lot of minutes. I’m sick of the little scratch off minute cards! Give me a contract, please!

American Time – I’ve broken down, almost to a science, the conversion of time between Azerbaijan and America:
-       5 minutes American = 30 minutes Azerbaijani
-       Early American = 10am Azerbaijani
-       1 hour American = At least 3 hours Azerbaijani
-       Later this afternoon American = Maybe tomorrow Azerbaijani
-       Tomorrow American = Never Azerbaijani
I love promptness and I cannot wait to return to the land of it!

Washing Machines – I have not missed anything more than my washing machine. If there were a word stronger than hate for washing clothes by hand, I’d use it. In the summer it’s so hot that you have to wash clothes way too often. In the winter, your hands freeze while washing and the clothes never dry. All of my clothes are ruined from all the hand washing, yet they are not nearly as clean as they are after a cycle in the washing machine! It’s a waste of time and the greatest inconvenience I had while living here!

Friday, October 12, 2012

What I Will Miss

Here’s a look at some of the things I will miss most about living in Azerbaijan

Freshness – Knowing where my food comes from at each and every meal has been one of those small factors I did not appreciate until recently. When I go guesting at someone’s house, invariably everything is a s fresh as can humanly be. The yogurt? That was made yesterday. The chicken? From their yard. The fruit and vegetables? Just step outside and pick them yourself. The bread? The clay oven is in the back! Even in a agricultural state like Maine, renowned for its fresh seafood and produce, you cannot get fresher than Azerbaijan.

Squat Toilets – Yes, the smell is usually unbearable, but the simplicity will surely be missed. Plus, check it out online, squatting is better for you!

Forced Ingenuity – With sporadic internet, limited social resources (malls, concerts, etc.), and practically no money, it can be difficult to come up with things to do in your free time. The internet goes out as you’re about to get online to Skype or answer emails? Think of something else to do, because it’s not coming back anytime soon! When we host other volunteers for the weekend, there’s this unspoken sence of fun that comes from creating something from nothing, from finding the most ingenious ways to enjoy yourself and your company. Cooking pizza with one burner, no oven, and only 5 dollars? No problem! Drinking? How about Sangria made from Russian vodka, Sprite, and some strange wine you found in the basement? Want to play Twister? Buy a couple markers and table mat. 20 minutes and 2 dollars later, you have an official Twister board! Trey and I once made a tee when we first started softball. We used a cardboard box from a care package, duct tape, and PVC piping and brinks we found near the dumpster! It’s projects and activities like these that make you appreciate what you have and help you live in the moment more than I ever appreciated back home.

Bilingual Life – I’ve done it before when I lived in Mexico, but there’s nothing like being able to speak two languages everyday! Switching back and forth, combining two languages into one, and constantly learning new words and phrases…I will miss this a lot.

Teaching – Again, I’ve done it before working at lacrosse and hockey camps, but I cannot express to you enough how much I love being a teacher. I love being a role model and I love trying to inspire. I have had many struggles while living here, working with youth was never one of them. My students were the light at the end of every dark tunnel I passed through and I am so grateful for them.

Being Interesting – I’ll be honest, I love the attention! While here, I’m the expert, I’m the interesting one with stories and knowledge unheard of before my arrival. Returning home will be a little bit of a shock when students I see don’t show me the respect I have come to expect, when people don’t invite me over and feed me just so that they can hear me speak English and ask me questions about life in America.

Lastly, I will miss telling time based off the daily call to prayer. It's a very pleasant way to wake up and a great way to take short breaks throughout the day, a brief moment to take a deep breath and reflect.

Next up: What I Missed!

Monday, September 17, 2012

So, You Want To Join The Peace Corps?

I’ll preface this post with a little explanation.
For the past two years, this blog has been an outlet for me. I write when I’m happy, I write when I’m sad. I write when I’m on top of the world, and I write when nothing seems to be going right. I write mechanically when I feel the need to provide an update, and I spill all of my emotions when there’s no place else to turn. So, this Peace Corps experience that I have tried to portray to you in this blog is not always accurate. It’s certainly genuine, but if you’re trying to get a sense of what the Peace Corps is like, you can’t look at just a few of the posts; you have to take it all in. You have to recognize my highs and my lows, the passion and the emptiness.
As I complete my service, I can honestly say that I am writing this particular post with a clear mind. I’ve spent time reflecting, cataloging, decompressing, and now, at this very moment, I can say, more than ever, that I am centered. For those of you who have followed my journey (thank you!) and to those of you just joining it, here’s a look at the real Peace Corps, the one I tried to explain, but often sabotaged as a result of my own emotions.

So, you want to join the Peace Corps, eh?
First and foremost, that’s a wonderful decision! Whether you’re just finishing your bachelor’s degree or your 30-year career, you’re making the right choice. No matter who you are, you have so much to offer.
But, before you get going, here are a few things you should know.

You will find peace and purpose, I guarantee it. I also guarantee that you will cry. You will drink too much and hermit in your home cursing the day you decided to join this stupid organization. You will lose touch with old friends, and you will gain new ones. You will fall in love, and you will hate the world.
That’s all just life though, isn’t it? Peace Corps just amplifies it a few decibels.

You will glorify your past and vilify your present.
McDonald’s is NOT that good and gas, water, and electricity are NOT necessary 24/7. You don’t really miss home as much as you think you do. You’ll certainly miss small things: people, places, certain moments. Here’s a tip, if you miss your friends, don’t sit in your house ALONE sulking. Go out into your community and make new friends. If you miss things like guacamole, bacon, and sushi – well, I don’t have an answer for that one, sorry!

You will never fit in.
You will always be THE foreigner. No matter how small your community is, 2 years into living in the same place, someone will be completely baffled when they realize you speak their language. Get used to feeling like an outsider. Embrace it. In everything you do, you’ll be under a magnifying glass, constantly scrutinized. Fear not. Use it as an opportunity to constantly set a good example for the youth in your community. You’ll never be looked up to more than you are as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

You will fail at something.
You cannot let it get you down. Go into your service expecting nothing. Don’t go in with ideas of grandeur. Don’t plan on giving. Plan on learning. Plan on taking it all in and then reacting. By simply showing up you are already doing so much for your community. Don’t let the language barrier or cultural misunderstandings ruin your service’s potential.

Time is an evil temptress.
Sometimes, it will fly by (where have these 27 months gone?!). Other times, it goes backwards (it’s been 20 hours, get me off this train already!). You’ll count the months, not the days. Just be careful, the realization of “12 months down…15 months to go” can really ruin your week. On the bright side, you’ll never be bored again! Once you return to the States, a two hour trip on a paved highway will be a breeze. Waiting for only 1 hour to see a doctor will be impressively efficient.

You will be bored.
Embrace it! How often in your life can you wake up nearly every morning with absolutely nothing to do? Everyday is a new adventure, everyday is a blank canvas and you are the artist! Sometimes, they’ll be small, black and white sketches and you’ll stay inside all day watching movies and gorging on the candy from a care package. Other days, you’ll paint the Sistine Chapel and accomplish something you never thought possible! Both are okay and both will occur!

Check your ego at the door.
Seriously, this service is not about you. No matter how hard you try, many of the people you work with and for won’t ever recognize your sacrifice. Many won’t ever appreciate your accomplishments or your intentions. And, no matter how many blog posts you write or how well you write them, no one back home will fully grasp the impact of your service. Yes, your Peace Corps service is a laudable act of selflessness, but if you’re looking for a pat on the back, I suggest becoming double-jointed.

Lastly, and most importantly, you will love your service and you will hate your service. It’s hard – really hard. You will want to quit. Don’t. When you’ve returned to America, sitting back on your plush couch thinking about how you want to live the rest your life, living like you did in the Peace Corps is the first thing that will pop into your mind – on the edge, always learning, always on a new adventure.

You’ll never be more miserable than you will be when serving in the Peace Corps, but you’ll never be more fulfilled, more clear, more self-aware, more happy, I promise.

Best of luck, and thank you to all of those who supported my own adventure.

Living my dream. Thanks mom. Happy birthday!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

This Will Put A Smile On Your Face!

My student Samira (and yes, for anyone who reads this blog regularly, the same girl who I usually refer to) won an essay contest held by the US Embassy a number of months ago. She placed first in the entire country.
Yesterday, she turned this essay into a film for the Student Film Festival that will be held in the capital, Baku, next month. I am so proud of her.

It's in English, so have no fear, you'll understand it. Powerful stuff! Enjoy!

Youtube link:

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Stop Street Harassment!

It was quite fortuitous that the BBC featured an article about sexuality in Morocco, a quickly modernizing, Muslim country wrestling with its own identity, the same week that my students released an anti-street harassment video, a problem that plagues Azerbaijan.

In Morocco, pre-marital sex is illegal.
“If the code is removed, we will become wild savages. Our society will become a disaster.” – Imam Hassan Ait Belaid
“Legalizing sex outside marriage is an initiative to promote debauchery.”
– Justice Minister Mustapha Ramid

Comments like this from the article stood out for all the wrong reasons and I was left incredibly frustrated. However, what stood out even more for me was the BBC’s analysis of these comments.

“Critics of the Islamists argue that the strict sex laws merely increase the harassment of women. Men often talk of going for “female hunting”, as they drive down the boulevards trying to pick up women. Such harassment shows the sexual frustration that persists in predominantly conservative Muslim societies, analysts say.”

Now, I’m not quoting these comments to encourage a repeal of Morocco’s law. That’s not my place. Nor did I help my students film this short movie in order to encourage pre-marital sex in Azerbaijan, but we face this exact same problem in Azerbaijan: an inherent lack of respect for women. My young female students and female colleagues alike are often too scared to walk alone in their own communities. What kind of life is that? I won’t use this blog to say what I think the cause of such harassment is, but I will claim outright that, at least here in Azerbaijan, there is a serious problem, and the only way to address it is head-on. That’s exactly what my students did, and I am so proud of them for that.
We added English subtitles so that those of you who do not speak Russian, Azerbaijani, and Avar will be able to understand it.

Here is the link:
Please share it!

After posting the video, I contacted the American organization who’s video first inspired ours. They were gracious enough to feature the video on their site!

 Join the movement! Enough is enough and we should all expect things to change immediately. Nothing short of complete respect is acceptable.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Story of ABLE

I recount the following experience with great pride and accomplishment, not just for me, but for the PCVs and Azerbaijanis who helped make this year’s ABLE camp possible.
As I’ve likely described to you before, ABLE camp is the Azerbaijan Boys Leadership Experience, a weeklong, sleep away summer camp for boys between the ages of 14 and 16. The camp focuses on the ideas of leadership, community, gender equality, teamwork, and volunteerism. Last year, I played a minor role in the planning process, helping to arrange the daily guest speakers. Once camp commenced, I played a rather large leadership role. I stayed the entire week of camp and helped lead the camp curriculum. I also worked on the evaluation committee to create a critical evaluation of the camp for our sponsors; that report wound up being about 50-60 pages long. The camp was such a wonderful experience, for both my student Muslim and me that I knew I wanted to play a larger role in the 2012 version.

I took on the role of project manager and have spent that past 12 months working alongside a select group of PCVs and Azerbaijani counterparts tirelessly trying to make ABLE 2012 the best edition yet! My job as project manager was to oversee the daily responsibilities. With a budget close to $20,000 USD and about 20 PCVs and Azerbaijanis helping to organize the camp in various capacities, from finance to curriculum, applications, location, supplies, marketing, evaluation, and such, I was tasked with making sure deadlines were met and everyone had the support and resources they needed. It was an incredibly time consuming job and I spent hours every week on the phone and by my computer. We came up with a new logo and slogan (Are you ABLE?), started securing local partners and even some Azerbaijani corporate sponsors. Things seemed to be going so well. There was just one problem.

Every year, for the past 6 years, we were given a rather large grant of about $15,000 USD from the same commission. Because of the success of the camp and our extensive evaluation report, made famous by volunteers from previous years, we could always count on the grant. This past year, we submitted the grant application by the deadline as per usual. No red flags were evident. Then, we started getting requests from the commission to adjust certain things. At first, we thought there were weaknesses in our grant. But after extensive reviews, we couldn’t find any weaknesses. We went ahead and adjusted the application and resubmitted it, anyway. We remained optimistic, but feared that our requested amount would be cut back significantly. It seemed as though the commission was looking to go in another direction.
So, we braced for the cutback and submitted numerous other grants to replace the potentially lost funds. To our great surprise and dismay, our grant request was completely denied. Our amount requested was not decreased, it was turned down. We went from an annual presumed budget of at least $15,000 USD to 0 overnight. You can imagine how disheartening this was. Everything was perfectly in place, save for the money – just a minor detail. Without it, however, no matter how strong the curriculum or guest speaker line up, the camp had no funding and would not go on.
There was nothing else we could do but wait. Without money, the camp was not going to happen, so we had to wait and see if any of the other grants came through. In the process of waiting, we found out that the commission we usually received funds from had been given a new directive, one that did not include finding summer camps for boys. It had nothing to do with our application. Unfortunately, the commission did not consider the fact that cutting off our funding completely, despite a new directive, would severely endanger the continuation of the camp.
Weeks and months past. Grant by grant, we were denied. No one was looking to fund our kind of project. Thankfully, the PCVs I work with are an incredibly persistent bunch and we did not give up easily.

To make a long story short, we wound up being able to scrape together enough money to fund the camp through small grants and donations from local businesses, as well as an increase in camper fees we had hoped to not have to implement.

So, here I am writing to you on the evening of July 16, in the middle of ABLE camp. Unfortunately, I am not at it. To reduce costs and keep the integrity of the camp intact, we made the selection process harder, chose fewer kids (50 to 35), and went to a smaller, cheaper camp site. By doing this, we had fewer spaces for PCVs to stay, unlike last year when the space and money was plentiful. I have been at the forefront of the planning process for the past year. I know what it took to persevere and make this camp possible, and I am so proud of all those PCVs for sticking with it. Most of that inspiration to keep on trying came from seeing the camp firsthand in 2011. I know that every PCV in my group who worked night and day to make ABLE 2012 happen did it because of what they saw in 2011, by seeing just how much it impacted the boys of Azerbaijan. I got to experience the magic of it last year, and that’s what prevented me from giving up this year. So I, along with a number of other PCVs in my group reluctantly gave up our spaces in this years camp so that newer volunteers could experience that same magic, so that they too will be inspired when it comes time to organize ABLE 2013, regardless of the roadblocks they may face along the way.

Our logo
My boys coaching softball at the orphanage in a neighboring region

Rasul: heart of gold (also my hat and sunglasses)

Loved this shot

The whole group after a great softball training

The coaches (plus Trey and I along for the ride). What an amazing group of boys!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Just A Couple of Complaints

I have not been writing consistently lately, but I wanted to share a few thoughts with you. Life has been pretty wonderful recently. It’s summer time, and I feel like a kid again. Maybe it’s because I wear shorts and flip flops all day in the sun and have been very active with clubs. Or, maybe it’s because I only ever hang out with kids anymore. Seriously, with the exception of Trey (and there can be a good case made for the child in him), I’m not spending any time with adults. Any adult friends that I have are either married, busy, MIA, or in Baku where most adults migrate to in search of real work. I understand and don’t blame anyone. At first, I thought it was bad that I had no real local, adult friends, somehow upsetting even. Actually, it’s so refreshing. I get to spend my days immaturely joking around with kids and discussing subjects completely uninteresting to most adults. During the days, I feel like I have so much energy. On the other hand, at night I’m terribly sore and exhausted. It’s not easy keeping up with them!

I’d like to spend the next two paragraphs picking a bone with Azerbaijan!
First off, dogs. As in many countries around the world, stray dogs litter the streets. These flea-infested, garbage-eating balls of clumpy hair are certainly not cuddling material. But, I’d like to ask: “How did they get this way?”
People are terrified of dogs here. They’ll cross the street just to avoid them and feel no remorse over throwing rocks at a dog getting a little too close. What saddens me most is that none of these dogs pose any threat. I know this because most of these dogs are not afraid of me and look forward to seeing me as I pass by, giving them a brief pat on the head and tummy rub before I rush home to pour bleach on my hand. All it took to befriend them was a few days of soft hellos and the occasional kneel, just letting them adjust and eventually come to me. The other night I got scolded by a neighbor because a pack of dogs of wonderful cute, playful orphans followed me home from Trey’s.
I voiced my lack of regard for his concerns and made my way inside, alone (I’m a dog lover, but I certainly won’t be letting any of those mutts in my house anytime soon!).
I don’t bring this up with adults, but I tell kids it everyday when we encounter dogs when walking around. Don’t be scared. Most dogs are more terrified of you. Especially since it’s pretty customary here to keep a puppy for about 2 months and then throw it out on the streets when it gets too big and ‘uncute’. No wonder they bark and are terrified of humans. They’ve been abandoned and treated worse than my childhood stuffed animals. How would you feel? I’d be a lot meaner to Azerbaijanis than they are if I were a dog.
So, here’s my message: If you’re afraid of dogs, get over it! They are such sweet animals. If you still can’t get over that fear, stop adopting puppies only to abandon them mere months later. And, I realize no one here had the good fortune of watching Bob Barker, but spend a little extra to neuter or spay your animals, PLEASE!

Lastly, the ‘24/24’ sign that litters almost EVERY convenient store in this country! What does that even mean? 24/7 is definitely a thing. 24/24? Not.
In this day and age when even people towards the bottom of the economic spectrum have cell phones and access to cheap internet, if you’re going to start a store, and put all of your hard earned money into it, do a little god dam research!!! 24 hours a days/24 days a year? The 24 days a year part may be pretty accurate in this country, but you’re definitely not open 24 hours a day! My late night journeys to find a store that is still open have proved that!

That’s all. I’m done complaining!

Picking cherries with my little buddy Davud
The second mural is finally finished!
Balaken Summer Camp 2012!