Thursday, December 2, 2010

In Azerbaijan, Being Called Fat is a Compliment

Game Day!
The YD group post Game Day
The turkey tree
Kebabing with Ilaha and Rashad

The YD AZ8s facilitated two “Game Days” (Oyun Günü) with students at the schools where we did our language and technical sessions: Xirdalan and Masazir. The event at our school, School #9, wound up having 65 students from the 9th form participate. The goal was to increase community awareness of Peace Corps presence in Azerbaijan and strengthen relations with our current technical/language schools in Xirdalan and Masazir. It was a gender equal event and included the following events: 3-legged Race, Paper Airplane Competition, Health Trivia, Frisbee Toss, and a general game station. We ended the day with a dance and limbo party! We designed our “Game Day” based on the McGill Sports Camp model, wherein facilitators ran specific games while counselors were in charge of small groups of kids and brought them from station to station. This design allowed real personal connections to be made on the part of counselors, while also allowing facilitators to focus on teaching their game and challenging the kids without being too concerned with discipline. I was a counselor and really got to go crazy and have some fun with the kids! I was probably more of a handful for the facilitators than my kids were!
It was so wonderful seeing these kids with such beaming smiles on their faces! Nothing against the teachers of these schools – we have, in fact, met some extraordinary individuals who, like our own teachers back in the states, have a thankless job. Teachers here, on average, get paid less than $200/ month. They are also extremely restricted in that they are part of the systematic, Soviet-esque education system that completely frowns upon individualism and creativity. The kids are the victims of this system. It was heartbreaking when, during the paper airplane competition, my kids responded to instructions with completely blank stares. When they were told to decorate their newly finished airplanes they asked questions like, “What do I draw?” or “What colors do I use?” and just sat there. Imagine, 15 kids, markers and crayons in every color imaginable, free reign to do whatever they want, and not a single idea! One kid was bold enough to write his name on the underside of the wing. This hesitation persisted until we exclaimed that it was okay to use your imagination, that there was no wrong answer and they were not being graded.
Nevertheless, I've learned that, no matter what country you're in kids are all the same. The creativity, innocence, and excitement is there; in this case it just took a little extra push to have them come to life. Before I knew it, I was being pelted by rainbow colored airplanes from every direction! I know it seems like such a minor thing, such a small victory, but that is exactly what we were looking for, especially at this point in our service. My hope is that, not only will these kid’s creative juices continue to flow, but also that school itself will start to be associated with this “fun and creativity”. Many teachers came to the events as well. I hope that between the student and teachers who participated, they will begin to realize that there is so much more to education than merely what lies within the pages of an English composition book.


Thanksgiving here was a magical experience. As I mentioned in my last post, I regret not being home for the holidays, but I am among great people here. We held Thanksgiving at my LCF’s house. Her family miraculously gave us free reign over the kitchen for the entire day. Everyone was in charge of cooking a dish. I was given the task of getting us a bird, as I explained in my last post! Here, that doesn’t mean going down to the local Metro and snagging a frozen one from the freezer – it means buying a live one, fattening it up, killing it, plucking out the feathers, and gutting it. Based on US turkeys, I figured one would be plenty for 12 people. How wrong I was! After plucking and gutting and chopping, I realized that one was not enough! (By the way: baking a turkey is really not an option in most places here; ovens are either too small, or most of the time, non-existent, so we “kebab”ed ours). Anyway, with all the feathers and fat and guts gone, the thing maybe weighed 3 pounds when wet…makes you really appreciate the ole Butterball! So, day of, Dan and I went to the market and bought a second turkey. What didn’t cross our minds was how we were going to get the thing home. Sure enough, I gave the turkey wrangler the money and he gave me the live turkey by its feet. So, there we were, making the 15-minute walk home on the main road of the city with a live turkey in our hands. Strangely enough, no one seemed to notice or care. Only in Azerbaijan can you blend in while walking down the street with a live, gobbling turkey in hand!
The dinner itself was excellent and I was blown away by the resourcefulness my friends showed in their cooking abilities. We had all of the fixings: mashed potatoes, stuffing (cooked separate from the turkey of course), gravy, cranberry sauce (cranberries substituted for pomegranates), steamed green beans, peas, and carrots. This, of course, was accompanied by VERY terrible wine, and then followed by delicious apple pie, chocolate chip pumpkin bread, and chocolate cheesecake!


Tonight, I watched a bootleg version of “The Social Network” with my cluster. As terrible as the film was, it got me thinking of that other world, that world that “normal people” like me will never see. I’m talking about the world where counting starts in the 100’s of millions, the world that, in many regards, runs our world. I found it so fascinating just trying to imagine how the Mark Zuckerberg’s of the world live, how just a handful of ideas from just a handful of people essentially shape our world and all that we know. I couldn’t even begin to wrap my head around this concept. So, I started thinking about all that I would miss out on in life, especially while I was here, in tiny, “insignificant” Azerbaijan. The feeling extended to the exact subject of the movie, the social network, my social network. Every visit to facebook during my trips to the internet café reminds me of all that I am missing out on. The updates usually leave me yearning for home and all that I knew. Tonight, however, after walking my friend home, it hit me. I am living! This is it! I may not ever be worth 25 billion dollars, and I may not have been able to attend "Graffiti Party 2010" at Gertz, but I’m living and learning more than I could have ever imagined – far beyond my wildest dreams. To most, and even myself sometimes, my daily routine might seem menial, and my job irrelevant, but at this very moment I am content. I am engaged and I am eager.
Can you pick out what's different about this picture? 
The crew cooking our Thanksgiving feast


  1. I hope that you were better at disc in Azerbaijan than you were in Bonaire. Did you cry when you killed the turkey? Did you run out of the room screaming when you saw the turkey bleed? But seriously this post made me think and realize how blessed I am to live in Canada and the U.S. Instead of thinking about what you are missing out on back home; think about what back home is missing out on in Azerbaijan. You have an extraordinary opportunity to have a permanent affect on a society. Now maybe Mark Zuckerberg’s effect on the world made him billions of dollar but,how much do you want to bet that his mark on the world hasn't improve the lives of people the way you will improve the lives of the Azerbaijani’s you’ll be working with?

    At this time I will go from a serious message to a dumb quote that shockingly has some relevance but not really. Use it wisely:
    “It is who you were born to be. And here you sit, thinking. Well, Ricky Bobby is not a thinker. Ricky Bobby is a driver. He is a doer. And that's what you need to do. You don't need to think. You need to drive. You need speed. You need to go out there, and you need to rev your engine. You need to fire it up. You need to grab a hold of that line between speed and chaos, and you need to wrestle it to the ground like a demon cobra! And then, when the fear rises up in your belly, you use it. And you know that fear is powerful, because it has been there for billions of years. And it is good. And you use it. And you ride it; you ride it like a skeleton horse through the gates of hell, and then you win”.

    Some actual quotes to think about:

    When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge. ~Tuli Kupferberg

    All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.
    Henry Ellis

    I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.
    Walt Disney

    No one has yet realized the wealth of sympathy, the kindness and generosity hidden in the soul of a child. The effort of every true education should be to unlock that treasure.
    Emma Goldman

    Perhaps imagination is only intelligence having fun. ~George Scialabba

    Lots of Love,


  2. Hey Bud!

    Glad to see that you are making the best of what youve got, and that life seems more meaningful and fulfilling. To be completely honest, you're not missing out on anything here in the west; the fact that people sit on Facebook, play video games, and buy expensive and needless clothing is nothing to miss. It would be a much more enriching experience influencing the lives of others. Who knows, maybe the child who took the initiative to write their name on the paper airplane will use their outside-the-box thinking to become President. You're doing a great thing; miss the people back home, not the lifestyle.

    Also, to answer your question of what is different about that picture...I think there is a turkey wearing a backpack :)

  3. I am sitting her reading my eldest's blog and my youngest's comments, and wondering what I could have done to be so blessed; having two most extraordinary people as such a big part of my life. How rich I am.

  4. That must of been fun when you got that live turkey, I wonder if you can keep it as a pet. Sometimes living at home I take getting food for granted not knowing well what people have to go through to get it. Shaws is great and all but I bet its nothing compared to the freshness of food you been eating, yum!! Just checking pal, Ive been thinking of you, happy to hear your taking in the experience. Good luck with your new mission.