Friday, December 30, 2011

Sticks and Stones

I’m just going to come out and say it, call a spade a spade: Azeri construction is a joke. I mean no disrespect, but it’s true. Most people know it. The only people who would argue this statement are the know-it-all “masters”, the bricklayers, the carpenters, the people who actually construct things around here. It borders on sheer ignorance. Tinkertoys are more stable than the things constructed in this country! I know that you could come up with any number of excuses to defend their feeble attempts at construction, but given my occasional suffering (especially in winter) and their refusal to take any sort of advice, I lack any sympathy on the matter. Houses are built completely misshaped, with tiny, unusable spaces, windows that don’t fully shut, and door frames that are completely off center. Gaping holes in the brick laying let in stinging cold air during the winter months. These men use cement like a six year old uses wet sand at the beach when making a sand castle. The main street in town, under construction for the past 6 months, was built without any sort of shoulder for parking, despite the numerous shops that line it. So, the new four lane road immediately became a two lane road. That’s funny, it was a two lane road before they went through all of the trouble! Cobblestone sidewalks were built as well. I trip over the bricks and inadvertently kick them out of their places on a daily basis. They also planted palm trees (don’t even get me started on that one) in the middle of the sidewalk. Between those and the lamp posts strategically placed on the sidewalk as well, your only choice is to walk on the street. Too bad there’s no shoulder!

The point of this post, other than to rant a little bit (it’s my blog, I can do what I want), is to share with you a joke my close friend Farid told me tonight over tea and nard. It’s an Azeri joke making fun of the very thing I was talking about above! It has been adapted for English. I hope you enjoy it!

An unfinished building falls down suddenly, leaving a huge mess. The building inspector must find out who’s culpable, so he calls everyone into his office one by one. First, he calls in the bricks.
“What happened yesterday? You were supposed to stand firm, give the building it’s shape.”
The bricks passionately reply, “We weren’t doing anything, promise. We were just all stacked there quietly, and the next thing you knew, BOOM!, we all come tumbling down.”
Next, the steel beams are called in. “What happened yesterday? You guys were supposed to really strengthen that place up. How could you have let it fall?”
The steels beams also fervently reply, “We had nothing to do with that, honest. We were in our places, keeping nice and firm, when, all of the sudden, we collapsed.”
The building inspector, clearly frustrated that no one was taking responsibility for the accident, calls in the cement in hopes of getting some answers.
“What happened yesterday? You’re the foundation of the entire building. How could you let it fall?”
The cement, very confused, innocently replies, “Sir, we had nothing to do with that accident, we weren’t even there!”

Happy New Year everyone!

Our homemade presents Christmas morning
Christmas dinner

Thai curry pumpkin soup

Our Christmas tree (Yolka in Azeri)
Happy Holidays from my region (the middle finger)!

Apple cider

Monday, December 19, 2011

Life In The 'Baijan: A Year in Review

This year was supposed to be my biggest yet, not to be outdone by anything before it. For the rest of my life, it was to stand out as one of the best. I was on the journey of a lifetime, living out my dream, going where no one (literally) had gone before. Yet after everything that has happened in our world this year, my own adventure doesn’t seem so significant anymore. From royalty and retribution to toppled despots and empowered masses. We’ve seen wars ended and icons lost. We’ve wrestled with fiscal uncertainty and privacy, as well as with the power of Mother Nature. It’s been a year like no other! It will certainly be remembered, but not in the way I, nor anyone else for that mattered, had envisioned it.
Looking over all of it made me feel so small, so inconsequential. Admittedly, this stung a little bit. I guess I figured my service would be headline news!
However, when I actually sit back and try to recap 2011, other than making my head spin, I realize that I never did expect this to be a big deal to anyone but myself. The fact that it wasn’t is exactly how it should be. Sure, we PCVs try to do as much good as possible while we’re here, but in a strange place with limited funding, how much can we actually accomplish? The truth is, more than changing the world, the Peace Corps changes us.
Reviewing the year that was, I begin to appreciate what I’ve done, just as much as everything else that has happened in our crazy world! It’s not these great events of 2011 that impress me most; it’s the little things that remind me why I’m here, that remind me that we’re all in this together.

MY highlights for 2011:

One of the highlights of my service has actually been my family and friends back home. I have a support group at home larger and kinder than I ever knew. My family and friends have sent me packages and written me letters. They have sung to me over the internet, called me on my birthday, donated to my projects, visited me, and continued to include me in their wonderful lives. To those of you reading this, you know who you are. I am eternally grateful. Thank you.

Not including Azerbaijan, I have travelled to three new countries. I have made so many new, lifelong friends.
I have seen many of my students blossom into wonderful young adults. And I have seen parents so in awe of their child’s ability and passion that they ignore cultural norms and accept change, encouraging their children to strive for things they themselves never could have imagined.
I’ve seen my little brother, albeit through Skype video, transform into a great man (although don’t tell him I said that or his head will grow bigger than it already is). I even saw my parents sell my childhood home.

The changes have be too many to count, but as I settle in and prepare for my final 11 months of service, I am grateful for what was and excited for what will be.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

FLEXing Their Muscles

I haven’t posted in a while. I guess I’ve been lacking inspiration. The dreary weather, the dull calm before the storm of a Caucasus Mountains winter, has eaten away at any energy and excitement that was leftover from the invigorating summer months.
Fret not! Inspiration found!

I am so proud to write that 3, that’s right 3 of our students have passed the second round of the FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange) application process, a program that sends Azerbaijani students to America for a year to study in an American high school. The program reaches students across Eurasia. Approximately 40 students from Azerbaijan will be selected. It is an incredibly difficult application process. The first exam is relatively quick, testing the students’ basic knowledge of English. The second exam is much harder: a 3 hour TOEFL exam. Not many student pass this round. 3 students, Muslim, Samira, and Gulchin, from Balaken passed and are now preparing for the third and final round, on November 28. In this round, their character will truly be tested! They must go trough a private interview, a group interview, write 2 essays, and have a meeting with FLEX staff and their parents. We have been preparing with them all week at my house, discussing basic interview techniques (imagine the interviewers without clothes on to relax) and preparing for the possible questions that might be asked. ‘Why do you want to study in America’ is a much harder question to answer than you would think, especially when you have a free year of studying in America on the line!!! However, quite honestly, there is not much more to say or do to prepare them. They are fantastic students and wonderful kids. When it comes to interviews and interacting with people, I have absolute faith that they will thrive.

I am just so proud of them and so happy that they, and their peers for that matter, are able to see the results of their hard work. It’s no coincidence that these 3 passed. They are always at clubs, always engaged, always trying, always aiming higher and searching for more. I hope this resolve they have always showed begins to wear off on many of their peers, seeing what a little effort and dedication can do.

Please keep Muslim, Samira, and Gulchin in your thoughts and prayers. Being from a small place like Balaken (we only know of one other person from Balaken who ever did FLEX), they are up against it (half of the students will be selected from the capital and its surrounding cities, leaving only 20 spots for the rest of the country), but I can’t think of 3 better students to represent Azerbaijan.
Good luck guys! Uğurlar (good luck)!

In other news, I’ll be heading to Baku on Thursday to celebrate Thanksgiving with other volunteers. The American Embassy is hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for us on Saturday night.
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone back home! I wish I were spending it with you as well.

Clubs are slowly starting to pick up as people settle into their school and tutor schedules. I had a pretty big breakthrough the other week. I went to meet with the minister of Youth and Sport. As I walked into his office, without calling ahead, he quickly ushered me in, welcoming me and saying that they had been expecting me. Not really sure how that works without so much as a phone call, but whatever, the point is that I was there! So, he sat me down and began picking my brain for ideas. After a while, he explained that he was old and no longer saw the world like a child. He proclaimed that this was a problem given the fact that he is the minister of YOUTH and Sport. Here’s where I come in. He said he recognized my ability to work with kids, that I see the world more from their perspective...I am still not sure whether this was a compliment or a crack at my height. Either way, I come to find out that he is in the process of writing his official 2012 work plan that is to be submited to Baku for review. He wanted my input because he wants us to work together more ths year. This is a huge step for me and I cannot wait for my final year of service to get’s sure to be a good one!
Other than that, I have been doing a lot of preparation work for the bigger spring and summer projects like Softball and ABLE camp. I am already excited for summer to come. It’s only November...uh oh, that’s not good!

I’d lastly like to mention all of the AZ7s that are currently finishing their service and heading back to Amerikastan. We had a going away party in Balaken for Bailey. We’ve been getting about 5-10 kids at clubs the past few weeks. On this day, a cold rainy Thursday during fall break when schools are not even open, approximately 25 kids showed up for the goodbye party. Such devotion speaks volumes to the impact that Bailey has had on the youth of Balaken.
On that note, I’d like to thank all of the 7s for their service. They’ve completed a wonderful, selfless adventure and I am proud to call them my friends. I am sure they are excited to leave, but they’ll all take a piece of Azerbaijan back with them in their hearts.
I’ll miss you all. Good luck in all your future endeavors, RPCVs!

Monday, October 31, 2011


Thanks to my buddy and fellow volunteer Mike, making movies is the new cool thing to do up here in northern Azerbaijan! It's a wonderful activity for the students. It forces them to be creative; they must create a script (in English) before Mike comes up to shoot it. What's more, because they are all so busy with school now, they really must plan ahead and work together to get the shoot done in the limited amount of time they have. Although Mike is the brains of the operation (and I am usually just getting in the way), we try and give the kids complete creative and logistical control. As you'll see in this film, they yet again did an amazing job!

Our lastest creation, in the spirit of Halloween (drum roll please)...ZOMBIES ATTACK!

Please share with others! Below is the Youtube link.

Pictures from the shoot:

Homemade Blood! (Water, Flour, Hot Cocoa Mix, and Red Dye)
Samira being Zombified
Our makeup artist Layla
The Zombie Divas
Scary right?! Too bad I got killed off first! (Still bitter about that)
The stars of the show! Will they survive the zombie apocalypse?!
The whole crew afterwards

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Adventures In The Kitchen

When I left home to go to university in Montreal, without the comforts of a mom or a cafeteria to take care of my culinary needs, I was a little worried. I made due. I got pretty good at grilling meats and cooking pizza. When I didn’t have time or inspiration, Chef On Call, Alto’s, Pizza Du Parc, and Boustan always sufficed! Here in the ‘Baijan, things, needless to say, are a little bit different. No Metro grocery store to hit up for some good steaks and BACON, no delivery service, and certainly no oven or full-sized kitchen. What is a useless 23-year-old to do? Well, usually I eat egg sandwiches, oatmeal, and snack on a lot of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, one of the pluses of food in this country. I don’t buy meat and I don’t have a cabinet full of spices and a store with every item I could ever need to cook. Occasionally I look at recipes online that people have posted on Facebook. 90% of the time, I get about 2 sentences into the recipe when I find out that I am missing a critical part of the recipe and there is no way I can cook such a thing here.
Egg sandwiches are great, but they can get boring after over a year. So, lately, I’ve tried to get creative. Here are a couple of my most recent dishes. It’s fun, and actually quite soothing, to experiment in the kitchen. The winter here is going to be long, dark, cold, and wet, but I am starting to realize that standing in front of a hot stove trying to cook news things from scratch, no recipe, phone, or mom to help me, is the perfect thing to get through this season.

On Canadian Thanksgiving, Trey and I celebrated by making homemade poutine! It certainly was no Patati Patata or La Banquise poutine, but it wasn’t half bad and reminded me of my home city and the people there that I miss and love. Trey made the fries, crisping them with a little flour, while I made the gravy using beef bouillon cubes, flour, and anything else I could find that I thought might taste good in a gravy.

This second dish is tuna cakes. Tuna, although a little pricey on my budget at about 3$ a can, is a great way for me to get some much needed, and usually lacking, protein and Omega fatty acids. I tried spicing it up, and it actually worked out! I added pickled ginger, Thai basil, shredded carrots, an egg, some floor, and some toasted oatmeal to keep it together. Nothing in it is bad for you, and once crisp with a little mustard on the side, well, they’re really freaking good!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Balakan Softball Tournament

This past weekend, Balakan hosted a softball tournament for the first time! Peace Corps Azerbaijan started a league a few years ago. In the past year, the league has grown from 4 teams to 13! Many of those expansion teams popped up in the north of the country, where I am situated. Thus, our soon-to-depart commissioner Josh (I'll be the assistant commissioner starting in December) saw it fit to allow us to host the annual tournament that the American Embassy is gracious enough to sponsor.
I've spent the last couple of weeks running around like a chicken with my head cut off, making reservations, advertising the tournament around town, and frantically calling to see if the money would come in time. Everything worked out perfectly. I could not have envisioned the tournament going any better than it did. On October 15, Balakan welcomed nearly 100 students and 20 PCVs from 6 different regions. I am proud to say that nearly half of those students were, in fact, GIRLS!
The week before, our team made jerseys and decorated hats, thanks to the donations by Trey and my parents; we are the Balakan Dragons! We had about 25 students show up on the first day to play, clearly too many to play, so we had to juggle everyone around to make sure that they all got a chance to play.
Each team played 2-3 games over the course of the day. That night, we ate dinner, watched The Rookie, and played inside the Olympic Complex. The next day, Sunday, the boys had a home run derby while the girls played a girls only game, the first time there have been enough girls at a tournament to field two full teams! After, the PCVs played a game while the students coached and cheered!
That night was probably the most tired I have ever been!
I spent weeks worrying, but the tournament wound up being a greater success than I could have ever expected. I am so grateful to the volunteers who brought their students and made this tournament possible. The people who run the sports complex were absolutely amazing, making sure we had everything we needed. Our team didn't do so well, losing every game we played, but we were by far the youngest team there. I see big things in our team's future; we're built for the long haul! Despite the losses, our kids played great and I never saw them without smiles on their faces. For a while, I was worried how the community would react to such an event. On Sunday, Saxmar, the head of the Olympic Complex, came up to me during the PCV game and in very broken English said, "I love this game." Looks like softball is here to stay!
Commissioner Josh addressing everyone before the tournament started
Samira sporting our new uniforms!
The Balakan Dragons!
Going, Going, Gone!
Tural connecting with a ball during the Home Run Derby
Alvina doing the same during the all girls game
Almost everyone at the end of the tournament (my team and Tovuz left early)
The remainder of our team at the end of the tournament

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Azerbaijan Gets Some Visitors

After a visit to Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, my parents are back home. Here's what they had to say about their trip to the land of fire.

Azerbaijan: A Land of Contrasts

Well, our trip to visit with Jake is now over. Part of this was a holiday outside of Azerbaijan, but part was a view into the country and into the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). We are grateful to Jake, his other AZ8 and AZ7 PCV’s, and their Azeri friends and counterparts for their hospitality and insights.

First, all who know a PCV should thank them. They work hard, sometimes in difficult and mind-numbingly frustrating situations, trying to make a difference. They do this not one project at a time, one task at a time, or even one person at a time. They do it one personal interaction at a time. Assimilation into the community begets trust which lays the foundation for small changes; small victories. The sharing of new, sometimes threatening but exciting and progressive, ideas. Boys and girls can play sports together. Girls can become leaders. People of diverse cultural backgrounds can work cooperatively.

Azerbaijan itself is a land of contrasts. It is truly a developing country, not a developed one. There seem to be extraordinary extremes of wealth and poverty; haves and have nots. Oil revenues seem to make some quite affluent, while many simply subsist. Baku on first glance appears to be a progressive, outwardly glistening, modern, somewhat “westernized” city. But much of that is superficial: a physical façade with access to the greatest resources for the elite few. But, people are people. The BEST part of Baku was Xirdalan; make that Jake’s first host family in Xirdalan. The love and warmth of that family for Jake was something to behold. And we rode right in on his coat tails.

Balakan was as different from Baku as one could imagine. There was a true sense of community, a true sense of personal pride, and our son’s friends and second host family treated us as if we had known them forever. The children, teachers, and site counterparts welcomed us with curiosity and warmth. But, the area is trying to develop; not there yet.

Being in a developing country was a new, and at times difficult, experience. Communicating through an interpreter (Jake) was at times difficult and frustrating (and I am sure exhausting for Jake). Thank you Jake for all of your hard work.
Being in a “fishbowl” in Balakan was difficult, as had been anticipated. I am soft. I like western world creature comforts and the security of familiarity. I am glad, howevere, to have stepped out of and expanded my comfort zone. I am thrilled to have seen Jake and shared in a little piece of his Peace Corps experience.

With PCV’s like Jake, Trey, Matt, Marie, Stephanie, Lori and Bailey; with Azeris like Farid, Elvin, their families, and Samira, one has to have hope that the world can get better one jar of delicious honey, one great meal, and one baseball game at a time.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Eurovision 2012

Many of you may have heard of Eurovision, but few probably know what it actually is. It's a song contest that many countries outside of North America (not just Europe) compete in every year. It actually started all the way back in 1956. The singers representing each country, who usually compete in American Idol type competitions to make it, do not necessarily have to be from that country, and all songs are sung in English. Celine Dion sang and won for Switzerland in 1988 and ABBA won for Sweden, of course, in 1974. Those really are the only two notable, international sensations to come out of this contest. The contest is usually embraced more by smaller market countries. In Azerbaijan, needless to say, the contest reigns supreme! We are the defending champions and will be hosting the contest this coming year.
As the hype and excitement builds, my two friends and fellow volunteers Brad and Tim decided to make their own music video, a rendition of Jay-Z's "New York State Of Mind". Little did they know the video would go viral and get over 80,000 hits in less than a month. They, now known as the Caspian Dreamers, became national pop sensations overnight!
Well, the other night they had a 30 minute appearance on the station that is hosting this year's competition. I was invited and got to sit backstage. They concluded the interview with a wonderful performance! After, my phone was blowing up with texts from Azeri friends who had watched, all of whom pledged to vote for Brad to represent Azerbaijan.  Oh ya, almost forgot, Brad announced his candidacy on national television!  If it is anything like their youtube music video's popularity, you may be seeing an American represent Azerbaijan at Eurovision 2012!

Click Here for their Live Television Performance

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Lights, Camera, Play Ball!

Our students, along with PCV Mike (a fellow Mainer) in neighboring Car village and the Balaken PCV crew recently produced a short movie entitled "Play Ball Amelia". It is an adaptation of this classic child's tale.
We had a blast making this. The students took the lead, writing the script, choosing roles, and even telling us what to do! I hope you enjoy. Inshallah (hopefully), it will be the first of many!
Synopsis: When a player gets the measles Amelia takes their place in a game against the Tornadoes, but she knows nothing about baseball!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The World Was Built In 8 Days

That’s right, just as fast as the idea popped into our heads, the paint brushes were dry and put away and the project was done. It took just 8 days and a lot less paint than we bought to create a mural of the world map on the entrance wall at the children’s library. Man is it beautiful! Seriously, Vatican City has its Sistine Chapel. Balaken has this world map! I keep stopping in just to stare at it! Much of the work we do as volunteers does not have tangible results. We are catalysts, hoping to encourage things that will manifest themselves long after we are gone. But this, well, there it sits, all bright and colorful, the fruits of our labor available to gawk at between the hours of 9 and 6, Monday through Friday!
We could not have done it without the tremendous commitment of our students. Samira, Muslim, Turkan, and Fuad came everyday during the first week to prepare the wall: priming, sketching, and only finally painting. The rest of the students came everyday for 5 days straight the following week. Each day we painted 2 new colors. By the fifth day, the masterpiece was done. I am so proud of them and also grateful for their help. This has been a project I’ve wanted to do since I got to site. I also must thank the librarians, who though at first quite skeptical, gave us free rein to paint all over their walls. “Those crazy Americans!”
The library was already a great space and a wonderful resource for the youth of Balaken. Now, it is just that much brighter and will hopefully continue attracting kids!
If any other PCVs are interested in doing this project, just send me an email or a comment and I can supply you with everything from the project plan to the budget.

Day 1: Priming

Our helpful crew

Mixing paint

Tracing the map...and me clearly not helping too much

First coat of paint!

First day painting countries

2nd day: Muslim forgot about Mongolia!

Samira and Muslim hard at work

Checking for errors after the second day of painting countries

Even the librarians got involved in the painting


The final product! Ain't she a beauty!

Celebrating a job well done

The Trip of a Lifetime!

Kate and StevO...excuse me, Dr. StevO, are three days away from joining me in the 'Baijan! For the first time in my life, my parents will be looking to me for guidance. They'll be the ones wide-eyed and clueless, overwhelmed and dumbfounded, hanging on to all little bits of familiarity as they embark on this epic adventure together. Like most people's parents, I've always looked to mine for advice and experience. I was usually (and often still am) the dolt praying someone would be there to move me through adolescence, and I am grateful my parents always were. Now, it's my turn. I have a feeling they'll be pleasantly surprised by the place I have come to call home, but it is nonetheless a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I wanted to share with all of my readers. So, I asked them to write a short commentary on their fears and expectations. It's fascinating to see the parallels between their concerns and presumptions, and the emotions I went through when I arrived in country nearly a year ago. It's bound to be a remarkable two weeks. I'll be sure to follow up when I return!

Here you are: 
My wife and I leave in 3 days for our adventure with Jake. Jake has asked us to write a short note about our expectations and emotions prior to the trip. What a mix of emotions and uncertain expectations I currently have.

First and foremost will be the joy of seeing my son in person for the first time in a year. Skype has been a blessing, but nothing can beat physical presence. Jake is a joy. He is an inspiration. He, like his brother, is one of my heroes. It will be spectacular to see him in his element, in Azerbaijan, where the Peace Corps experience is affording him, his site mates, and the subjects of his efforts and activities such an amazing growth opportunity. I expect to be awestruck.

I look forward, with some nervousness, to experiencing completely new and foreign cultures, but worry slightly that I will find discomfort in “being in a fishbowl” (as Jake has put it), and in not sharing a common language. I trust in the warmth and welcoming nature of the people that Jake has portrayed, and will happily travel on the coat tails of his popularity.

To be honest, I expect that the experience will be so new and different, that my expectations are not very clearly defined or vivid. They are more just emotions: wonder, excitement, and a touch of trepidation.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Here's To You, Peace Corps

Please read: The Rugged Altruists

This short op-ed from the New York Times provides a valuable perspective on the life of an international development worker and what it takes to survive the toils of living in the developing world. The author talks about the virtues of an aid worker: courage, deference, and thanklessness. I couldn’t agree more. Although short and lacking in elaboration, the article effectively illustrates what we, as Peace Corps volunteers, must go through and what we feel on a daily basis. This, along with the fact that my sitemate Stephanie has chose to extend her service for an additional 6 months inspires me to write a brief acknowledgement of the fantastic work that Peace Corps volunteers are doing all over the world.

So, here’s to Peace Corps volunteers everywhere, to their optimism, their persistence, their ingenuity, and their selflessness. We all struggle sometimes. We all question why we’re here, we half-ass a club because we just don’t have the energy, and we stay cooped up in our home watching movies and counting down the days until we get to return home to the warmth and familiarity of America and our families. But, we also stick it out, we get so immersed in our work, so emboldened and impassioned, that we ignore our unease and discomforts, disregard our insecurities, forget how far from home we are, give all of ourselves to our work, and embrace this new life we have chosen.
The work is usually never as dire and desperate as it seems in this article, and sometimes it is not as impactful, but it is always done with just as much effort, compassion, and fervor. So here’s to you Peace Corps volunteers, to your failures, your successes, your good days and bad ones, but mostly, here’s to the kindness and hope that you spread in everything you do, from the most heart-wrenching and “successful” of events to the seemingly inconsequential daily occurrences. You are making a difference, and I am inspired by you.

Playing homemade Azeri RISK in Qax!

Notice that there are very few white pieces on the board at this point. I was slaughtered!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Not All Glitz and Glamour

Upon returning  from Albania, I stayed in Baku for a few days for work. Through her work, my sitemate Bailey has made a lot of really great contacts in the capital city, where most NGOs and IOs are headquartered and do a majority of their work. (Side note: Peace Corps is one of the few IOs that does not place any volunteers in the capitals. In every Peace Corps country, we only work out in the regions, the smallest, most desperate places with the fewest resources.) Anyway, some of her contacts at the UN Department of Public Information had read about our arts summer camp. They were apparently very impressed by our work, especially given the small size and remoteness of our site. They invited us to attend a youth event at the SOS center in Baku and present to the children and guests. It was a spectacular success. All four of us met and were driven to SOS’s center on the outskirts of the city. There, we made a collage with all of the students where we prompted them to draw pictures of how they could change the world, or if they were to meet a world leader, what they would say to that person. After, we toured the SOS facility and listened to presentations with the likes of the UNDPI, Save the Children, OSCE, and UNICEF. It was nice to celebrate our success as a group, all four of us being recognized for our work together, especially in the company of so many great IOs. 

I digress, this is not the point of this post. Occasionally, as is clear from above, I must go to Baku for work, either to Peace Corps headquarters or to meet various contacts that I work with but that are stationed in Baku. When I go to Baku on official business, my travel and lodging is paid for. When I am there for my own work, like this trip, I must pay myself. I am too poor to afford a hotel room. Luckily, I have made some expat friends, and they have opened their home to me and many other volunteers whenever we need it. They have a beautiful two-story apartment equipped with a real guest bed, air-conditioning, and hot, unlimited showers ANY time of the day or night! It really is a treat to visit them. Oh ya, they are also great people and I really enjoy their company!

So, although the trip is long, when I am in Baku I tend to be a little spoiled. It’s comfortable, almost feels like a real, western city, and I can go out to eat and drink. Although I always wind up spending too much money and spending the rest of the month at site nearly broke eating oatmeal for every meal, it can be very soothing to spend a weekend there. This developing metropolis has a lot to offer, especially compared to my wonderful little town of Balakan. However, as this New York Times article reports, it’s not all glitz and glamour in the capital.

I will reserve judgment and keep this blog neutral and PG so as to not piss off any governments. However, after reading this article, you’ll see why the Azerbaijani government is probably not too pleased that this was published!
I don’t see the need to go into this any further, the article speaks for itself. Also, as a Peace Corps volunteer and a foreign national in a country like Azerbaijan, there’s nothing I can do, nor anything I should do; I’d just get myself into a lot of trouble. It’s just important to note that there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than we usually notice or care to notice, and not just in Azerbaijan. In developing countries especially, but maybe even in your own backyard, many times it’s worth taking a second look, because it’s not all glitz and glamour.

Marie and I at Martin's (expat friend) birthday party 
My Program Director Tarana and I (Tarana is leaving Peace Corps at the end of this month)
The event at the SOS center

Our collage
Envera (Head of UNDPI Azerbaijan) being interviewed in front of our collage
An advertisement for fish sandwiches in Baku!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Catching Up

Where to begin, it’s been so long since I last posted – July 14th to be exact. The devastating heat of summer has oftentimes left me lethargic, too sluggish to put my thoughts to paper and share them with you. At the same time, the freedom of summer, the sanguinity and innocent enthusiasm has kept me busier then ever. As 3 projects conclude, 4 more start up. Volunteers throughout the country are sending e-mails requesting assistance; camps are in full swing, preparations for the school year are underway, and oh ya, I almost forgot, I went on vacation to Albania for a week!

I try and keep my posts focused, narrowing in on one theme or event as opposed to just recapping what I am doing. However, it has been far too long and way too many things have happened to move on without summarizing just a little bit. So, here we go!

My last post was July 14. The next day, a Friday, my volunteer club had its second ever event. As you’ll recall, we had a used-item drive for the Internot School/Orphanage. This time, we returned to Internot, with the intention of holding a field day of sorts. Prior to going, the students all decided what games they wanted to teach to the students of Internot. We narrowed it down to 3: softball, ultimate Frisbee, and UNO. We showed up at around 10 (there were approximately 15-20 of us) and met the director. She summoned her students and instructed them to take us to the soccer field out back. This wasn’t much of a soccer field, strewn with grazing cows, geese, and more piles of cow dung than I think I have ever seen before. There was also the smell of a rotting carcass. We couldn’t pin point it, but something dead had clearly been sitting in the sun too long. Anyway, Trey and I were quite nervous. Our kids were hot and reticent, while the Internot students seemed wholly uninterested. I turned to talk to Trey for a second, to figure out how we would organize and motivate. Before we knew it, Muslim and Rasul had rounded up most of the boys and were distributing baseball mitts. A group of our girls had started teaching the rules of ultimate Frisbee to another group of students, while the younger ones sat in a circle with Layla and Samira playing UNO. Without any instructions or encouragement, my students had taken charge. Just like that, there was a baseball game being played on one half of the field, an ultimate Frisbee game on the other half, and all of the little ones had gravitated to the UNO circle. Trey and I were left standing there, useless, superfluous. This went on until about 1pm, when we finally tried to wrap things up. No one wanted to leave, neither group. The girls had a cult following, Rasul and Muslim were being called teacher (I don’t even get called teacher), and people were pleading with me to left everyone stay. It was getting too hot, so I conceded a little and we played a couple of group games before finally leaving at around 2, promising to return the following month. A great day completed, no thanks to Trey and I!

The Field at Internot
Had to include this one...too cute
Ultimate Frisbee
Muslim and Hecer teaching softball
The UNO circle

I didn’t have time to write about the Internot event because, on that Sunday, I brought Muslim to ABLE (Azerbaijan Boys Leadership Experience) camp, a national boys sleep-away leadership camp about 4 hours south of Balakan. This is one of Peace Corps Azerbaijan’s biggest projects. There is another one called GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) for girls the week after; I sent two girls to that. Anyway, I am also part of the committee that organizes ABLE. I worked on inviting guest speakers who come each day to speak about everything from the environment and fitness to gender equality, human rights, and project planning. I am also on the evaluation team that reports back to our donors on the success of the camp.
These boys are the best of the best! They must fill out an application and have 2 different PCVs vouch for them. The goal is to help foster their leadership skills, allowing them to meet boys like them from all over the country and putting them in leadership roles through various games and activities during the week. Being away from home for so long without family is a totally foreign concept in this country, so this camp is an enormous step for most of these boys.
Long story short, the camp was one of the most amazing experiences I have had in country thus far; I was surrounded by a fantastic group of PCVs and Azeris. The boys seemed to get so much out of the experience. So many times, kids would come up to me unprovoked to tell me how much fun they were having, or how they just did something that they had never done before. As well, the male PCVs really got to bond. A prank war unfolded in the last few days that included a midnight dance party, a stray dog, missing shoes, and a water balloon attack at 5am.
We were so busy the whole week, that by the end of it, we were popping Aleve every morning like they were Skittles. The camp was quite strict, and bossman Todd kept the kids in line. Those who broke the rules were sent to me for morning punishments. I took them on Indian runs, made them do pushups and wall sits until they cried, and generally tried to discourage them, through pain, from ever breaking the rules again. In most cases, it was a success; there were not too many repeat offenders. However, by the end of the week, I had some kids joining me just for the fun of it. Clearly, I was not cruel enough!
On the final day the Ambassador came. He met with the students, talked with them about leadership and respect, and awarded medals to the winning team. This, was my proudest moment. On the first day, the boys were divided up into 4 random teams. Most events counted for points, which were tallied everyday. On the final day, the winning team was announced by Todd and the Ambassador. Muslim, my boy, had been selected team captain by his peers; the Fire Land Gang was the name of his team. He was, by far, the youngest of the 4 captains. Regardless, his team won. It was so thrilling to see him call up his team in triumph, and then proudly shake hands with the Ambassador. I am so proud of him!
The AZ8s met one night to begin planning ABLE 2012! Next year, I am the project manager for the camp. I cannot imagine how we could make it any better, but we’ll do our best.

The panel of judges for the talent show. The winner did impressions of many of the counselors, including me!
Ambassador Bryza speaking to the campers
Ambassador Bryza and Muslim

Counselors and counterparts along with Ambassador Bryza

From there, I had a much needed vacation! Marie and I spent a couple days in Ganja with the world’s most gracious hosts, Dustin & Kelly…and Brad, and then went to Qax for a couple days to see Lori. She too spoiled us silly. On August 1st, I took a flight to Tirana, the capital of Albania, to meet Tony for a week of fun in the sun! We met so many wonderful people along the way, from the 2 French couples on the streets of Tirana also trying to find out how to get to Saranda (the southern port city where we spent the week) to our newfound best buddy Stephen, the crazy Brit who teaches English in Iraq. Long and short of it, Albania is a magical place! It’s a backpackers paradise. There isn’t enough time in the world to list all of the interesting people we met along the way. It’s cheap; Tony and I struggled to spend our remaining money by the end of the trip. Fairly underdeveloped still, the city of Saranda is small and clearly unfinished, but quite hopping. Many restaurants, cafes, and bars line the waterfront. There are many hotels and inns, but if you are seriously looking to go, and want to keep it on the cheap, you can do no better than the Hairy Lemon Hostel. This hostel was perfect. Run by an Irish woman named Annette, it is clean, has a breathtaking view, and offers free booze and pancakes. What more could you ask for? Did I mention Saranda was beautiful? We spent our days exploring beautiful pebble beaches, swimming in the still turquoise water of the Mediterranean Sea. It was so wonderful catching up with an old friend, making new memories, and relaxing for a week. I missed the buzz of work and it felt strange walking around in an unbuttoned Jimmy Buffett shirt and headband without being stared at, but it was just what I needed. I am so grateful to Tony for taking the time out of his busy life to spend a week with me. Thanks buddy!

Tony and our new French friends

The Blue Eye Spring (a sink hole over 50m deep and 10 degrees C that constantly has water flowing from it)...I jumped into it. Unreal colors!
The view of the Sea and the Greek island of Corfu from our hostel
The beach at our hostel...we actually didn't even spend much time here
Marie gave Brad and I haircuts!

Dustin, Brad, and I in D&K's new pool!
Dustin and Kelly, my favorite couple
The gang hanging out after dinner
Dustin, Trey, and I in the mountains in Balakan washing off in the river post watermelon-eating contest. Trey won.

In other exciting news, my good friends Elvin and Elnura had their first child, a girl named Nuray! Now I get to be that crazy American uncle! 

And lastly, please, if you have any interest in donating to our national softball league, I would be most grateful. It is a fantastic project for the youth of Azerbaijan. Help them experience America's pastime!
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